We need to design better neighbourhoods for Wales

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

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

8 thoughts on “We need to design better neighbourhoods for Wales

  1. “Tina Saaby, Copenhagen’s CITY ARCHITECT”…Can you spot the critical job title snuck in there? Makes you wonder doesn’t it. Until cities and towns in Wales place a value on design and the importance of the city’s assets such as its public realm and buildings, then we won’t have the strategic design direction of places like Copenhagen. Copenhagen is consistently in the top 5 best cities to live in. Trust me, it’s not because of the weather.

  2. Northern Wales’s urban centres seem to be increasingly populated by tacky pink buildings devoid of soul. Victoria Dock (Galeri aside) comes easily to mind as a carbuncle on what should be a most glorious spot, that does not articulate to the rest of the town, its people or its visitors. Elsewhere, infill projects and trading sheds lack coherence and with no rapport with the people who live, work and visit the spaces. We start with wonderful historic townscapes that we then ignore.

  3. Doc Fictoria is indeed an opportunity lost although I understand that the Holiday Inn is the most popular in Britain… not surprising with the view across the straits. I can’t agree that the Galeri is any sort of triumph however. Again a great place to sit outside having a coffee but the potential is lost because of the parochial atmosphere and the poor standard of staffing… these things make a difference to the utility of architecture and I’m not that impressed with the architecture.

    Another opportunity for Caernarfon is about to arise with the development of the frontage alongside the Seiont. I just hope that we can raise our sights a little or another brilliant position will be wasted.

  4. Some general ramblings: The question is asked – why is our historic fabric often better than the new? One possible reason is that much recent development, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, was based on the “vehicle scale” rather than the “human scale”. As a result our built environment is not one that is comfortably occupied, enjoyed or celebrated. Reassuringly, a number of recent developments are exhibiting a new focus for creating quality places at the human scale, and these are we need to ensure become the norm rather than the exception. But how do we do that?

    Currently many house-builders display little responsibility for development legacy – the robustness, adaptability and evolution of the place in the future is not one that is foremost in their minds. Designing something that gets planning permission and which can sell appears to remain the overriding focus. On this count, it is somewhat disappointing that developers, who at the end of the day are crucial to achieving quality spaces, are often absent from these seminars/workshops. Much more research on the financial value of good quality design to a developer would be of benefit and would help to convince developers to take the route to designing quality places. What about naming & shaming poor design/environments?

    Within planning authorities, particularly in Wales, there are often no design expertise let alone any specific design officer. All 3 LPAs I have worked for in England had design teams, the two LPAs I have worked for in Wales have not. Outwith the planning authority, there is a case for a Council to have a design vision at corporate level that places design as one of the core themes for an authority as a whole.

    Many exemplar schemes appear to rely on direction & commitment from the landowner – basically their philanthropic wish to achieve a good quality development on their own land. Such an objective is simpler to achieve than relying on the planning system at the other end of the process. When development is proposed on Council land, it is crucial that the Council ensures delivery of a good quality built environment as part of the land purchase negotiations/contract rather than a sole focus on capital receipt that is too often the case. If the Council is not committed to the cause then why should a private developer?

  5. We need to design better neighbourhoods – yes. Yes, “start with people, life and activity” (that comes towards the middle/end of the article?). To do that we must all recognize and re-examining our relationship with some of our place-making assets, and project them into the future, so that people can continue to live and be productive in their neighbourhoods.

    We need appropriate changes to our village-, town- and city-scapes, not unimaginative expansion. Wherever possible we should repair, renovate, re-use and up-cycle – it’s more resource efficient, it reflects the “distinctiveness” of places. This may still tend to happen in large and wealthier city centres (yes, like Copenhagen) where sustaining cultural capital is less aggressively challenged. But for the hinterlands, including towns and merging or subsumed villages this is sadly not so – rub it out and start again dormitories, is what we see more and more. (e.g. http://www.rhodrijones.com/test/index.php?azione=fotoList&idnode=0000000028 )

    I’m surprised there isn’t more mention in the article of food. [See “Hungry City” by Carolyn Steel on the relationship between food and cities as fundamental to our everyday lives, and how modern food production and distribution contributes to many current problems, from isolation, obesity, to the destruction of natural assets and biodiversity.]

    Despite being a farming and food-producing nation still, most of us in Wales have only a passing notion of what food is and what work makes it what it is (or isn’t) by the time it gets to our plates. Many of Wales’ traditional market towns have perished, becoming residential conurbations adjacent to [if we’re lucky, several] megastores.

    The people of Abergavenny are fighting to preserve the cattle market that acts as a special, social focus for local neighbourhoods and the atmosphere and connections it provides http://abergavennymarketfutures.wordpress.com http://www.keepkalm.co.uk
    But none of the regular engagement,convened by the LA, as cited in the article as being instrumental to good planning (as in Copenhagen) is happening to make sense of the needs and interests of local people. It is a strictly Decide-Announce-Defend issue (Judicial Review next week!). Mike – comment 3 – confirms this is far from unusual here.
    A successful campaign in Llanrwst saved the conversion from cattle market to supermarket there – it can be done – amdani Lanrwst!

    But people power needs to grow. Far better engagement is needed to connect people to the design process. If not, precious, historic, characterful, buildings, landscape markers and space, connecting us to the local physical and political geography are replaced by momentarily clear-skinned and peachy, anodyne and wincingly box-like constructs, accompanied by liquid assets for [often local authority] landowners and deal-makers.
    You’ve got to smell a rat, haven’t you, when these babies come with their own bath water?!

  6. Mike said ‘Within planning authorities, particularly in Wales, there are often no design expertise let alone any specific design officer.’, to which I would add that if my experience is representative then few of those on the planning committees have any engineering or building experience either. Result, planning permission for housing in completely unsuitable areas – in fact in one case so unsuitable that even the builders won’t build there. But it does increase the nominal value of the land.

  7. “Designing something that can get planning permission and can sell appears to remain the over-riding focus”. Indeed, Mike. In speculative house-building the central fallacy seems to be that only hideous pastiche will sell. This is to rig the market for the convenience of producers who will not innovate, and to underestimate the taste and discrimination of the public. Commercial magazines that feature good design are popular. Design stores have mushroomed. Television programmes on design and architecture draw decent audiences. Kitchens, bathrooms, furniture have changed their look radically over the years, so why has the outward appearance of the bulk of modern housing changed so little? Why is the would-be home purchaser offered so little choice and so little quality? Many bemoan excessive producer power in the public sector, but here is an example of excessive power in the private sector, a power that seems to express contempt for the present consumer and for future generations.

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