“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?”

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