I’m a person whose heart beats a little faster in an unknown city, and who feels for streets something akin to love. Big, messy, dense cities throw people together and force them to coexist across barriers of class, age and origin. In my romantic vision, they generate the sort of multi-faceted, companionable, environment, laden with opportunity and possibility, that the young hanker after and the old say doesn’t exist any more. They are Paris in the 1890s, Greenwich Village in the 1950s, or Manchester in the 1980s.
So I’ve always been drawn to the New Urbanism – the urban design philosophy which celebrates these qualities in cities. New Urbanism planning promotes higher densities, mixed-use development, life at street level, and interconnectivity. In the ideal New Urbanist development, it is a short walk to everything; people have less of a need to drive, so they are healthier and greener; there is enough of a critical mass of population for local businesses to survive and public transport systems to work efficiently.
(Low-density development, conversely, is urban sprawl, eating up the countryside with forlorn semis set anti-socially along broad surfaces of tarmac. It’s been called “prairie planning” – where even the houses themselves are lonesome.)
Ten or fifteen years ago, when the Government viewed planning as something more than an exercise in making the rich richer, it was keen on New Urbanism. Many local authorities set minimum density levels, typically of about 30-35 dwellings per hectare (dph).
At the same time, there was a growing interest in the notion of Green Infrastructure (GI) – the idea that, as well as being somewhere to play, green spaces in cities provide habitats for wildlife, clear the air, soak up flood waters and improve the appearance of towns. They give us shared spaces, common ground on which all can meet. They make people happier and healthier. Who could fail to love public parks?
So, many local authorities set standards for open space. Many of them adopted the Fields in Trust (formerly National Playing Fields Association) standard of 2.4 ha per 1000 people, but some went one better – proposing up to 5.4 ha per 1000.
“But,” I thought, “surely you can’t have both?” That is, if you have to have 35 dwellings on every hectare of land – which might accommodate 80- 100 people – surely that’s going to make it hard to fit in large amounts of open space, as well?
Existing development in Newcastle seems to back up that view. Most of the city (not counting the centre) has a density of less than 25 dph.
The areas that do have higher densities tend to be low on open space. This area has a density of 34 dph. It’s entirely occupied by houses with gardens, and contains a school with a large playing field, so you could argue that it has quite a lot of greenspace. But it has almost no public open space at all. There are 1788 residents, so, to meet the FIT standard, it should have 4.29 ha of open space.
This area, very near to where I live, almost fulfils both criteria. It’s fairly dense (26 dph, but not all of the built-up area is residential) and contains large amounts of open space – to meet the FIT standard, it should have 7.18 ha of open space, and the area in the centre alone measures about 8.3 ha. The terraces that you can see in the left of the area are legible and navigable, with short walking distances to shopping streets and public transport routes.
However, this hasn’t yielded either a perfect living environment or a perfect complement of open space. The terraced area contains a lot of dwellings but it doesn’t include very much else. There are no gardens, not even little front yards; doors open straight onto the street. The open space, meanwhile, is accessible and visible, but it’s almost devoid of features. It’s predominantly used by young men playing team games – which is fine, of course, but it does mean that it’s not catering for anyone else.
Is it possible to reach a compromise position? There are several points to be made on this.
The first is that setting open space standards doesn’t necessarily mean that each individual area should contain exactly the right amount of open space. The important calculation, if calculations are to be made, is whether people within the city as a whole have access to sufficient open space. Newcastle has some very large areas of open space which cater for people in dense and less-dense areas of the city alike.
The second is that, just because creating a dense urban environment with a good complement of quality open space isn’t necessarily easy doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. It could look a bit like this bit of Edinburgh, with medium-rise blocks and shared open spaces:
The third point is that there is, in fact, a potential conflict between increasing density and incorporating more open space. We have a pressing need to build more housing at present, and an imperative to reduce the environmental impact of development. We know that these aims are better met by densifying development, and therefore we can’t allow area-based standards for green infrastructure to dictate low densities. We need to be clearer about why we want to create green infrastructure – what we want it to do for us – and tailor it accordingly. As touched on above, it isn’t enough to say that because a large amount of green space is available, that all the functions of GI are adequately fulfilled. Different functions have different requirements in terms of level of maintenance, landscaping, and access, for example – few of which are met by a featureless expanse of grass.
GI needs to be a positive thing: the standards we need to set are not necessarily, or not only, those of quantity, but those of quality.