“I don’t want to look at it!” A Plea for Better Design

Some time ago my parents asked me for advice regarding a proposed development near to their house – a few houses on the edge of a settlement.
“So why is it that you don’t want it to go ahead?” I asked.
“What a stupid question!” said my father. “Because I don’t want to have to look at it.”

Experience shows that his opinion is not uncommon; it would seem that people prefer fields to houses, at least, so far as the views out of their windows are concerned. When people have made their millions they buy a mansion in the commuter belt. Others dream wistfully of a country cottage, and mourn the fact that they can’t afford the Simple Life.

Now, much has been written to support the notion that human beings instinctively prefer to look upon scenes of nature than upon the built form. The “biophilia hypothesis” proposes that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other natural organisms.

Conversely, however, most of us – an increasing proportion – live in some sort of settlement, and almost all of us live in some form of static dwelling. And, while it is true that most of us enjoy the Great Outdoors in one form or another, many of us partake of it as well-fed house cats do: we pop outside, enjoy the fresh air, and then return to our streets and houses, where “real life” takes place.

We may be biophilic, therefore, but as a species we are far from being urban-phobic. Yet, whenever a new development on greenfield land is proposed, there is every likelihood that people living nearby will strenuously object to it. And, although there are often valid and compelling reasons to do so – encroachment into the countryside, increased traffic, pressure on services – sometimes these can be stripped away, leaving nothing but the almost visceral response, “I don’t want to look at it.”

Of course we have to accept that, where their own environments are concerned, human beings can be intensely conservative. Change disorients us; it forces us to redraw our own mental maps. Once we have done so we are sometimes perfectly happy, but until then, change is traumatic.

There’s another factor, though, and I think it’s both a contributory factor to the view that new development is likely to be a Bad Thing, and a consequence of it. It is the quality of design of some new developments.

Despite all the advice and guidance that has been provided on urban design, and despite the reiterated claims by local and national government that all new development should be well-designed, many new developments still consist of a scattering of undersized houses on a standard pattern, arranged inefficiently in cul-de-sacs with little attempt to generate streetscape, shared spaces, or pedestrian and cycle routes that interlink with the rest of a settlement; there are no shops or other services; they are often inward-facing, so that what neighbours see of them is a ten-foot close-boarded fence and a vehicular entrance. No wonder existing residents prefer their former pastoral views; who wouldn’t?

Why is this? Well, I think it’s because none of the actors have any real incentive to make things any better.

Developers can predict profits more easily with a standard product range. They know that there is a premium attached to detached houses. They also know that the UK’s bizarre convention of marketing houses by “number of bedrooms” rather than by floorspace rewards those who can build smaller bedrooms, and that house-buyers seem surprisingly myopic about this. Providing shops or services within the site is an additional expense and a business risk.

Local authorities have an obligation to permit sufficient dwellings for current and likely residents; they fear that, if they reject a development on the grounds of design, the developer will appeal, win, and claim costs; they often have out-of-date and contradictory policy on design; and councillors and planners alike are sometimes short of expertise and knowledge, which makes them less confident about rejecting a poor development.

Residents are likely to object to schemes on principle because they like the status quo, as discussed above; to enter into a discussion about what sort of development would be acceptable on a given site could, perhaps, be seen as a show of weakness.

Why does this matter? If people continue to buy new houses, they must like them – what’s the problem?

Well, philosophically, we seem to have developed a view that new housing is, like factories, waste treatment plants and the like, a Necessary Evil which will always have ill effects; this implies that there is No Such Thing as good housing design. This seems to me to be inimical to fostering a sense of community.

Practically, our current failure to enforce good design has a knock-on effect upon the functionality and coherence of a settlement. Closed-off cul-de-sac layouts with one way in and one way out for all traffic prevent meaningful connectivity between a new development and the settlement it is attached to. Distances are multiplied and made circuitous, so that cycling and walking are less attractive means of transport and bus routes harder to plan. Moreover, where there are no shops or other services, the need to travel is increased. This has a knock-on effect on traffic volumes elsewhere in a conurbation, and upon carbon emissions and local air pollution.

Our failure to control dwelling size affects those who have to live in undersized homes. Of course the principle of caveat emptor applies here; but, if all developers are under the same market pressure to reduce dwelling size to increase profit, the entirety of the new housing stock shrinks, so we’re generating an awful lot of sub-standard housing which will, in all probability, be there for decades. That is, people may end up with little choice.

A belief that the negatives of new development, for all apart from new residents, must outweigh the positives, could lead to a negative attitude towards site selection in which the sites allocated for housing aren’t the “best” ones, but the “least worst”.

The exception to the rule of little policing of design is in, or adjacent to, historic areas, where attention is paid to preserving settings and “mitigating the impact” of new development upon the valued, older buildings. Again, this reinforces the idea that new development must be a bad thing. It could also act as a tool of social inequity; developments adjacent to middle-class historic suburbs could receive more scrutiny, and end up being better-designed, than their counterparts adjacent to 1960s council estates – not because of any belief that the middle classes deserve better design nearby, but rather, that their houses do.

What is to be done about this? Well, I think, most importantly, planners need to start behaving like “planners” and less like administrators caring only for the “number of units delivered.” We need to make some decisions about what sort of towns and cities we want to create, and how we want them to function; and determine, with reference to evidence rather than hunch or preconception, what mechanisms are likely to bring this about; communicate requirements adequately to staff and developers alike; and, above all, ensure that design requirements are enforced.

Academics, likewise, need to share their knowledge with the world at large and, in particular, with those who have the power to implement their recommendations. There has never been a better time to do this, when anyone can keep up a blog, run an account on Twitter, and develop networks of interested people.

Thus, we have a chance of making people view the newer parts of town as positively as they view our historic city centres. The aim, surely, should be that when an objector to a development says “I don’t want to look at it!” others may respond, “Why not?”

Blue House and Green Equity

When the announcement was made that the Blue House Roundabout scheme had been called off, it naturally led to a great deal of rejoicing in green circles.

For those who weren’t aware of the scheme, it would have entailed the replacement of a small roundabout with a very much larger one, taking up areas of Duke’s Moor and Little Moor – open spaces with a thousand years of history. As well as its immediate impact, it would have been likely to lead to an increase in traffic, without making life easier for cyclists and pedestrians.

In this interconnected age, the protest movement began to mobilise very quickly. Thousands of people signed a petition against the scheme, and a protest march attracted two thousand demonstrators and the local media. A few days after the march, the scheme in its original form was withdrawn. It was, we said, a vindication of citizenship, a demonstration that, if the issues are clear enough and enough people engage in them, this may be enough to stimulate a change in institutional policy.

There’s another aspect to it, though, which was expressed by the comment: “It’d still be going ahead if it was in Benwell.”

The Gosforth and Jesmond suburbs which abut Duke’s Moor and Little Moor are the wealthy parts of the city. They contain spacious nineteenth-century villas and town houses, delicatessens and upmarket children’s clothes shops. People move into Gosforth to get their children into the High School and its excellent feeder schools.

People in Gosforth and Jesmond are articulate and educated. Nobody fobs Gosforth off. Whatever information you choose to impart to Gosforth, someone will have the expertise necessary to question and challenge it. Above all, people in Gosforth are used to being listened to.

Wealth and class and knowledge confer power, and the powerful accrue good things to themselves, and this has always been true with regard to living environments. Of course, to a certain extent this is inevitable: people who have the luxury of choice choose better housing in more salubrious areas. It’s not quite as simple as that, though.

The story of post-war slum clearance, and how it feeds into what became the study of “environmental equity” has been repeatedly told. In many cities, vast areas of housing were condemned, and the occupants moved into replacement housing of variable functionality. Although the houses demolished were often appalling, it was subsequently felt that the process disenfranchised people and broke up communities – particularly where people were moved into the sort of developments where street life could not happen, because there were no streets, or, indeed, any functioning shared areas. A few decades later on, many of the new developments, affected by crime, dilapidation and abandonment, were themselves demolished.

The process continues in certain places where demand for housing is low. In County Durham, successive administrations who have been unable to address the area’s economic woes have taken it out on the places affected. Nineteenth-century pit terraces were cleared out of the centre of some settlements, leaving only the later houses on the periphery. Later, many of these were also demolished. In some parts of the County, the pattern of settlement looks as if the villages have been chewed up and spat out again, leaving randomly-scattered patches of housing across the map.

(Going off the topic of environmental equity slightly, I think that current housing policy is a much more egregious example of social engineering than slum clearance, in which the authorities and at least some residents thought they were doing the right thing. A raft of policies and measures have been brought in whose effect is to reduce the amount of affordable housing available, and limit who is able to rent it. This is at a time when, in cities where wealth and power concentrate, market housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable.)

Poorer or disenfranchised areas are also more likely to be disrupted for the sake of roads or other infrastructure, and it’s always claimed that this is for the good of all. In Detroit, at least 17,000 people – mostly poor, disproportionately African-American – were displaced for expressways in the post-war era. This wasn’t a new phenomenon. The hero of G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” – referring to a Notting Hill long before the Carnival and even longer before Hugh Grant – starts pitched battles to prevent demolition for a new road. The point is, I think, that Chesterton didn’t expect a working-class area to have much clout when it came to opposing the bulldozers of Progress, and he had to invent a quixotic local potentate to imagine them doing so.

As well as housing, areas are defined by shared environmental goods – such as good transport links, parks and gardens, and pleasant views. The current “austerity” drive has tended to affect services such as environmental maintenance because social and other essential services are, quite rightly, prioritised. It remains to be seen whether this will end up having a disproportionate effect upon poorer areas. Theoretically it shouldn’t, but it seems likely that richer and more empowered people will be able to call on greater financial, personal and professional resources to ensure that maintenance is kept up. They are also likely to do more complaining about environmental shortcomings. Where middle-class articulacy and empowerment result in an unfair allocation of public resources, or where it means that undesirable development is displaced into poorer areas, they can be, unfortunately, a tool for reinforcing social divisions and inequalities.

Sometimes in discussions of power and privilege, commentators at least seem to argue that the way to even things up would be to curtail the voices of the most empowered. This, I think, is illogical. Empowerment and knowledge are good things, and, unlike land itself, their quantity is not fixed. It doesn’t, therefore, follow that curtailing them in the privileged would increase them in the less privileged; you might just end up with less empowerment all round.

It’s a great thing that thousands of people were mobilised to voice their concerns about the Blue House scheme. It’s great that they had the skills and knowledge to understand the issues, the eloquence to comment upon them, and the belief that their voices should be heard. The question is, how these qualities can be spread around, so that the relationship between income, class and empowerment with regard to the local environment may be broken down.

Brown, B. (2016?) Edsel Ford Expressway. Accessed at: http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/edsel-ford-expressway

Chesterton, G.K. (1904) The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

City of Detroit (2016)Detroit Demolition Program. Website. Accessed at http://www.detroitmi.gov/demolition

Hastings, A., Bailey, N., Bramley, G., Gannon, M., and Watkins, D., (2015) The cost of the cuts: the impact on local government and poorer communities. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Minton, A.,(2015) Byker Wall: Newcastle’s noble failure of an estate – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 41. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/may/21/byker-wall-newcastles-noble-failure-of-an-estate-a-history-of-cities-in-50-buildings-day-41