About urbangrit

I am an urban designer. I am interested in enjoying the diversity of life, and striving to create great places for everyone.

Delivering Quality New Homes at Sustainable Densities

Upton image

Britain needs to deliver an extraordinary amount of new housing. The demand for homes is well documented. There are also numerous studies showing that the increasing cost of housing has effectively closed the market to some, and delayed potential home ownership for others. Small extensions to villages are unlikely to provide sufficient housing numbers. We need a large number of big extensions to existing towns and cities to be delivered, or new towns. Most Councils are now planning for these. But what should the criteria for these new neighbourhoods be, and how can they be delivered?

In those areas where new homes have been allocated in Councils’ Local Plans, delivery is still very difficult in the current market. Councils are now examining the problem of how to quickly deliver high numbers of homes with good quality environments.

The current model usually involves mass   like Barretts, Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon delivering the homes. They sell from ‘outlets’ with a couple of show homes, each outlet delivering about 50-60 homes maximum per year (at least currently, in the South East where the market is relatively strong). So on a big scheme, with two or three outlets, they could deliver 150-200 homes per year and no more. At least three large sites would be needed to deliver the amounts of housing needed in most Districts at these densities, potentially more.

The existing delivery model also relies generally on sub-urban, low density housing, because the finance is only available for well-off households who can afford to move into family homes. Those with less money available for deposits are stuck in smaller homes or flats and unable to move out or up, and institutions are reticent to invest in further rental markets, where there may be little finance for new home owners to move in.

New delivery models are needed that deliver what people want, but also provide the profits required by commercial investors. Investors that can extract money from the increases in land value that are provided in the long-term through good design, rather than the profits made from the short-term turnover of new homes, where the long-term quality of the environment matters less. In other words, we need establishments to deliver new housing that are in it for the long-term. Like the Church Commissioners, or pension funds.

Surveys showing what home buyers want put ‘Neighbourhood’ at the top of the list (80%), closely followed by ‘external appearance’, ‘good schools’ and ‘a safe environment’.

CABE research in 2004 showed that homebuyers want character; neighbourhoods that feel like places with their own attractive identity. And while they don’t like feeling overcrowded, they value the sorts of local services and sense of community that higher density developments can sustain.

On Saturday (6 April 2013) The Guardian published an article about Cambourne, a new town just to the northwest of Cambridge. The article also refers to Fairford Leys, an ‘estate’ in Aylesbury based on the principles of sustainable urbanism, and Poundbury, an ‘urban village’ as promoted by Prince Charles and design by Leon Krier. All are ‘designed’ new towns. Evidence produced by the Princes Foundation and Savills shows that land values in Fairford Leys have increased by up to 40% more than surrounding land values. The Conclusion from this and other areas studied is that places designed with the principles of sustainable urbanism provide better values, both commercially (for investors and developers) and environmentally (for those living in these places). Win-win.

The criteria listed are:

Mixed Use: while the schemes will be predominantly residential, they will also contain
a mix of other uses such as retail, business and community;
Mixed Tenure: a variety of income groups and occupations;
Mixed Housing Types: to support movement within the neighbourhood and thus
encourage community stability;
Good Public Transport Networks: to encourage walking and cycling and reduce
car dependency;
Walkable Neighbourhoods: community and commercial facilities accessible by
foot, and a street layout which is well interconnected and avoids cul-de-sacs and so
encourages a range of routes for pedestrians (and vehicles);
High Net Densities: high enough to support the viability of mixed use
areas; and convenient public transport;
Well Integrated Open Space: this should have a clearly defined use and a long-term
management regime, as well as being easily accessible;
Opportunities for a range of Work / Lifestyle Choices: accommodating economic
as well as residential activity.

Most of these could come under the heading of ‘Neighbourhood’. What is not mentioned is ‘management’ which is also a crucial part of the development process. As new communities grow, they need to be managed by the people living there. The Guardian article points to a community spirit and array of clubs and societies in Cambourne. Likewise in Fairford Leys, there is a strong community ownership, where public spaces including green spaces and urban areas are managed and controlled by the community. So a strong sense of community must be in the mix.

These elements can only be delivered together with a well-planned model of sustainable urbanism, with high densities delivered from the start. The previous models of ‘volume’ delivery cannot deliver this high quality type of environment. Nor can it quickly deliver the housing numbers needed. Additional value is added through delivery of high quality environments, but is only realised after 10 years or so.

The long-term model of delivery is therefore intrinsic to the delivery of long-term, high quality places, at appropriate densities.

This Shelter Report from 2009 presented a number of potential options for new delivery models. The Joseph Rowntree Trust also identified key issues and potential solutions in its 2010 Report. The evidence supporting this new model is regularly promoted by a number of practitionersNew models for delivering better places are now emerging, including joint venture delivery models (between the Council and developers), a new emphasis on market renting and build-to-let, and the potential for self build, which is much more widely used in other countries.

The next 5-20 years will see these new models delivering new environments. Let’s hope we can get it right. Or at least better than the last 20 years. Exciting times indeed!



Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City

Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City.

Really interesting article from the urban technologist, partly relating to how information can inform travel choices within the city.

We have always known that the best way to influence people is give them the information to make their own decisions, but have insisted instead on building yet more and more roads that serve to pollute and congest our urban environments.

FUTURE CITIES NEED TO EMBRACE THE BICYCLE – this presentation from MIPIM further endorses the idea that the quality of cities of the future will be measured by the number of people cycling and the quality of public transport; not by the availability of cheap parking spaces.

The Value of Urban Design

The Value of Urban Design –
National Urban Design Conference Reports.

Nearly 200 people took part in this year’s conference in Oxford, sponsored by Savills Urban Design. A clear statement of commitment to the cause.

The Urban Design Group annual conference at the end of October provided several discussions on the value of high quality design. In particular, Yolande Barnes from Savills research team gave a very interesting account of the commercial and long-term values that can be gained from good design. Yolande’s presentation also starts with a great Banksy image.

Introduction – Paul Reynolds, Louise Thomas

The Value of Urban Design: Market Trends. Yolande Barnes, Savills

The Value of Urban Design: A Developer’s View: Chris Brown – Igloo

MA local government perspective: Producing places to endure – Meredith Evans

Oxley Park, Oxley Wood, Milton Keynes: design for manufacture

Oxley Park was built as a result of a competition to build ‘£60k’ homes at ‘Code level 4 for Sustainable Homes’, introduced by Prescott back in 2006. The winning schemes are mostly built out now or nearing completion across the country. Oxley Park, Upton and Newport Pagnell were the first to be completed. Oxley Park is probably the most modern-looking.

Somehow, these streets feel slightly uncomfortable; but this may have partly been the fault of a dull day, the lack of anyone on the street, and the fact that planting has not really established itself yet. Certainly, the vision of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners on behalf of housebuilders Taylor Wimpey and Paradigm housing association was not just interested in the homes, but how they were put together as part of the neighbourhood.

These photos were taken just after occupation of the properties in late 2007 / early 2008. Welles Lane properties were selling for £230k at the time. Holden Avenue (site 6 Wimpey) was on the market in early 2011, selling for £200-£240k.

The BRE showcase homes had already shown how code 4 and 6 level homes could be built (see above). But these were one-off, very expensive eco-homes.

The idea of the ‘design for manufacture’ competition was to show that high quality market housing could be built inexpensively using mass manufacture techniques. The ‘Eco-hat’ (above) was the RSH chimney that pushed the eco-ratings up in these modular homes – used at the top of the service stack to control fresh air, re-circulate hot air and provide passive solar heating.

The detailing is incredibly crisp, but on some areas lacks visual quality – for instance the door fittings look flimsy. The juxtaposition of this modern, modular detailing against the more necessary clutter found in most developments is interesting too. The images below show how perhaps aerials should have been integrated into the design; also how despite eco-fencing, every Englishman still needs a garden shed.

I intend to go back soon and see how the planting has affected the development, how the neighbourhood has come together since the construction of the additional streets (there are about 150 homes altogether), and to hopefully ask some of the residents what it’s like living in mass-manufacture. If anyone living near here reads this, or you know someone how lives here, please let me know what you think. Whatever the issue, it’s pushing the boundaries and testing new ideas for housing – something generally lacking in this very conservative market.

Design for manufacture at Upton, Northampton


Shared Space, the evidence on accidents

This post reviews some of the evidence about the ‘shared street’ campaign; and also  responds to a very interesting post on ‘As Easy as Riding a Bike – the delusion of shared space‘.

‘Shared Space’ is a concept that is gaining much praise for improvements to the street environment, and has emerged from a much larger movement looking critically at the previous rules for the design of streets.

Through the past 60 years residential streets have been governed by strict ‘rules’, latterly set out in Design Bulletin 32 (DB32), which stipulated requirements for forward visibility, junction radius, road curvature, junction spacing etc. The result helped in producing much vilified ‘anywhere estates’ across the country. Much of the design requirements were based on false assumptions that have now been tested (and are still being tested), resulting in the emergence of the Manual for Streets (CLG, 2007). This publication was followed by Manual for Streets 2 (DfT, 2010), promoting the concepts for residential streets for use in High Streets and other high volume traffic situations.

For some further history, together with some examples of recent shared space schemes, see this briefing document. For years many of our streets have been blighted by design primarily for traffic and smooth traffic movement; and in many cases historic streets praised by local Councils were impossible to replicate, because their own ‘rules’ forbade it. The new guidance in the MfS 1 and 2 overturns the status quo, and has already produced some much better residential environments.

Shared street and parking at Upton, Northampton

Shared street in Upton, Northampton

The idea of the new approach to residential street design was to consider environment first, with vehicle movement as a lower priority. The main aim was not to reduce accidents, but produce a better environment. Many residential streets have seen great environmental improvements, and data so far shows that accidents on these streets has not increased, and in many cases the ‘side effect’ of environmental improvements has been a decrease in accidents (see tables on pp30-31 of this Appraisal of Shared Space, DfT 2009).

In particular, Kensington High Street was one of the first high profile schemes to emerge from the wave of new street design placing greater emphasis on the physical environment and pedestrians. The street was ‘decluttered’ in 2000-2001 with signage and railings removed in favour of promoting eye contact between driver / cyclist and pedestrian in order to change driver behaviour.

The evidence points to widely reported reductions in accidents at Kensington High Street.

Years later, a greater variety of different schemes have been completed (including Ashford in Kent, and Exhibition Road in London) and the evidence is still being collected.

These schemes are not necessarily the panacea they might at first have seemed. Where vehicle levels are high, there is a danger that pedestrians will be intimidated. In Ashford, evidence from University of West of England shows that pedestrians are not using desire lines but giving way to vehicles, many feeling safer under previous street arrangements.

Caernarvon square


Whilst the Exhibition Road scheme was generally lauded (although not by ‘As Easy as Riding A Bike’ – see above), shortly after opening it suffered its first accident. Caernarvon square is hailed as a success. Opinions are divided, and the acceptance of different schemes varies greatly. It is important that the evidence base is improved so that we can weigh up the elements of these schemes that make them work, and what needs further improvement. No one wants to go back to the cutting edge street design of the 1960s and 1990s. A trip to Basingstoke will tell you that.


Vauville, Normandy: ‘shared’ street design

Vauville is a small village in Normandy, France. There is not heavy traffic throughout the day, although it becomes busier at peak hours and provides part of a tourist route.

A narrow road width, keeping traffic speeds slow, with a raised footpath on one side, and a footpath separated from the carriageway by a drainage channel, providing temporary road widening for passing vehicles, also slowing passing vehicles down. Minimal obtrusive signage.

A footpath on one side, with parking bays, garage and front door entrances delineated on the opposite side by a drainage channel and setts.

Temporary street closure without a song and dance.

Simple unobtrusive street lighting kept out of the way.

Separation of footway from carriageway without kerbs: the carriageway can be used by pedestrians and cyclists; refuge can be taken as necessary without needing to bump up kerbs.

Sustainable urban drainage.