We need to design better neighbourhoods for Wales

Carole-Anne Davies explains how you can break the rules and deliver enhanced community living

Carole-Anne Davies

Opening last week’s Living seminar, the second in a series arranged by the Design Commission for Wales’ with the support of the IWA, architect Roger Evans referred to a sign in the window of his local printer: Cost, Quality, Speed. Pick any two! This, he said, mirrored the approach to housing in the UK and explains why we have fewer good places than we should reasonably expect.

Roger’s practice – Studio Real – has played a key role in creating many of the UK’s best new places. In his presentation he drew on many examples demonstrating that it doesn’t cost any more to build a pleasant place than it does a bad one. The same amount of floor space, pavement and built form is required for both.

Given the amount of professional time expended on development in the last 50 years, why is our historic fabric often better than the new? And could the new have been better, he asked, if we had considered new homes not as housing targets but as opportunities to evolve a range of villages, pieces of town, city quarters and properly connected extensions to existing settlements?

Without resorting to pastiche we can learn from the places we like. They provide human habitats in which the arrangement of components makes us feel comfortable. They respond to the means by which we humans experience our environment, through our senses: hearing, sight, walking, social encounter and interaction. They observe the universal rules of good human habitat which provide shared principles which underpin the evolution of successful communities. We can and should use these principles to consider the issues, generate ideas, make choices and take appropriate action.

In their work, in places such as at Newhall in Essex and Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, Studio Real have demonstrated that this approach delivers good homes and neighbourhoods of significant density and very high quality. The lessons are simple. By engaging in genuine spatial planning we can avoid the piecemeal assessment of small ‘sites for housing’, and readjust the focus toward the growth and evolution of good neighbourhoods.

One of the best neighbourhoods in the UK is to be found at Coin Street on London’s South Bank where Kate Swade and others in the Coin Street Community Builders group have steadfastly adhered to their motto: there is another way. The transformation of this chunk of curving river edge is legendary. Although it was forged from perhaps unique circumstances, its key lesson remains: commercial return, quality and community are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Affordable housing, good public amenity and open space with access to the River Thames, were the essential early objectives. Another was that the group would generate its own revenue income as quickly as possible after covenants, mortgages and borrowings were addressed. In restoring the original Victorian Street pattern, the project brought forward the Mulberry housing co-op and the first family town houses around shared gardens. This was followed by Gabriel’s Wharf, their first commercial development, both of which transformed the atmosphere of a non-place into a vital and viable space.

More affordable housing and community facilities followed, all designed to high quality, often by architects selected because they had never before designed housing. When told you couldn’t have a top-notch rooftop restaurant in a mixed use, affordable housing scheme, they defiantly delivered the OXO tower. Coin Street broke all the rules. The group has since delivered a neighbourhood centre, childcare and conference facilities, community dance programmes and a rejuvenated riverside that sustains a vibrant community and continues to demonstrate that there is another way.

John Kennedy of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Housing Trust reminded us that sustaining resilient communities is a key challenge of our time. We are all part of an ageing society, and our built environment and public services are ill equipped to serve it.

Research has shown that loneliness and isolation is just as damaging to health as smoking. The number of people who will experience some form of dementia equates to a city the size of Birmingham. The health service is already serving care needs with over 60 per cent of admissions being for people over the age 65. It is predicted that 80 per cent of future local authority expenditure will be on social care.

So should we not begin to consider housing provision as a key contributor to health and well being? Might we be better able to address the upward spiral of care costs by creating all-age neighbourhoods and encouraging social interaction across the generations?

Neighbourliness, contact and communal interaction are as vital to a healthy population as individual behaviour. It’s not all about the bricks and mortar but rather our interaction with one another in shops and on streets, with authorities such as the police or staff at transport interchanges. All these encounters could be more positive. Such concerns must be placed at the heart of designing for socially mixed neighbourhoods, although behavioural shifts are also required.

Tina Saaby, Copenhagen’s City Architect impressed delegates with her inspirational skip through Copenhagen’s City of Architecture Strategy. It identifies priorities and plans for the mix of small, medium and larger scale projects that define the character of the city and the desired quality of life it supports.

Tina also emphasised legacy. What sort of place do we want to create? What will we leave behind? She was clear on the need for good design to respond to the particular characteristics of a place and not to opt for standard solutions. What works in one place may not be appropriate in another. Delegates noted that in Wales we call this local distinctiveness and our (largely good) policy requires a similar approach, although it is not forthcoming everywhere. We noted, too, that Tina does not talk of policy, but of strategies, plans and action.

We heard Roger Evans’ messages emphasised further when Tina stressed the need to start with people, life and activity. Understanding the streets and spaces in between, and their patterns of activity, life and space, should come before buildings. Is it possible, perhaps in a local plan, to communicate these priorities clearly and set out consistent expectations for developers in a way that uses resources efficiently? It is done in Copenhagen. Investors and developers attend quarterly meetings that last for one mutually beneficial hour. The city gets greater quality and developers, greater certainty.

Small-scale interventions were also highlighted as quick wins. Cost-effective, temporary uses or small projects can transform spaces quickly and positively. In terms of larger gains we were reminded that the success of Copenhagen’s plan to increase the number of commuters using bicycles by 25 per cent, was not due solely to the popularity of a cheaper, greener, quicker mode, but also to the fact that roads are cleared of snow in the early morning, facilitating the school run by bike. Success is as reliant on the effective co-ordination of services as it is on cycling provision and route management.

Action plans in the Danish capital are devised with colleagues from the economy department and encourage grass roots activity and social enterprise. Can we not imagine the potential for towns and neighbourhoods in Wales of such integrated plans? In Copenhagen they have stimulated communal enterprise in everything from neighbourhood kitchens, to communal schools and a dance company housed in a now transformed derelict crypt (the latter suggested by the cemetery warden), and designed by a clever architect and led by a local politician!

Copenhagen’s achievements could be echoed here with simple, greener neighbourhoods providing important green space for village, town or city dwellers. The Danish commitment to the role of cultural activities that attract people to social spaces and support active neighbourhoods, could also be a model for us to emulate. Time and again we heard that we must put people first, for the sake of our homes and our well-being, and to create healthier, greener, more active neighbourhoods. To do this we need a more rational approach to risk, a more imaginative response to design challenges and stronger leadership underpinned by that vital combination of humility and courage.

Carole-Anne Davies is Chief Executive of the Design Commission for Wales. The third and last in the current Design Commission for Wales seminar series – on ‘Learning’ - will take place at St David’s Hotel, Cardiff Bay, on Friday 28 September between 9am and 4pm. It will be will be followed at 6pm that evening by a debate on the subject Wales – Design Nation? hosted by the Commission and chaired by IWA Chairman, Geraint Talfan Davies, to mark the launch of Cardiff Design Festival. Geraint Talfan Davies reported on the opening seminar of the series here