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!



Brooklands, Milton Keynes

Brooklands in Milton Keynes is a top development: apart from the award-winning ‘ridge’ (a noise bund from the M1), the scheme has provided a linear park and school before the first 100 dwellings are complete, along with some serious investment in landscape and other infrastructure (including the city street and 50M broadband in the service runs).

The philosophy of Places for People seems to be that investment up front will bring long-term value in the development. It certainly helps in selling the scheme, and the linear park is already well-used.

Brooklands has a ‘city street’ through the heart of the development, which delivers high-speed public transport, linked to the park and ride adjacent to the residential development area.

The city street with the school across the road - a lack of strong fencing (although there are a number of bollards) eans that the space in front of the school is a lot more 'open'.

In order to ensure that the active frontage to the main streets is maximised, parking is relegated to rear parking courts. Often these don’t work well – they are often bleak areas that are shunned in favour of parking on street (or half on-path). In Brooklands, planting in the rear courtyards establishes an improved environment.

Forbury Square, Reading

This part of Reading is slightly off the beaten track, ideal for taking a quick break after being in town. Forbury Square is also a great example of modern architecture integrating with historic buildings.

Forbury gardens provides a great setting for the Forbury hotel (on the left), a c1910 building originally the Shire Hall for Berkshire. Forbury Square interacts with both the hotel and the gardens. The modern buildings sit well with the surroundings, with the new brick gable of 1 Forbury Square (on the right) complementing both the modern glass facade and the Forbury hotel opposite.

The materials used in the square are great, with nice detailing of the pedestrian footways.

Oddly, though, this square never seems to get busy. My guess is that this is because the square just is not an ‘active’ environment. Firstly, the large grass beds are raised, making it much more difficult to use the square as one space that actively dissuades skateboarders, or scooters, or rollerbladers from using the area. There are studs all over the edges of the stone slabs edging the raised beds to stop boarders ‘grinding’. Why? What better than to sit having a coffee being able to watch some skaters showing off?

The metal buttons aren’t comfortable when you sit on them, and haven’t stopped the edges of the slab being eroded by skaters anyway.

Unfortunately, one side of the square (the east) also seems to be inactive. Although this is a facade of the hotel without entrances, there is actually a gap in the railings with some steps down to a fantastic boutique restaurant.

There are some benches here, which would be ok to eat your  lunch, but not much to watch going on in the square.

It even seems that the cafe/restaurants are unwilling to spill out into the square too much.

This square had the potential to become an extension to Forbury Gardens. But sadly, there are bollards everywhere, with a carriageway designed for vehicles effectively separating the garden and square.

There’s a real opportunity missed here to create a much better pedestrian environment, get rid of all the bollards, extend the square out over the road, make the priority for pedestrians obvious, and integrate the square with the garden both physically and visually.

Forbury Square is a quality formal square, but missed a number of great opportunities to provide better public realm. As a consequence, the long-term values of the area (financial, social and environmental) are unlikely to reach their full potential. That said, this is great square with some excellent architecture.

Colchester urban village

Colchester urban village is a development of 2,500 homes or so (with employment and open spaces etc) in a slice of land to the south of Colchester town centre, based on the ‘urban village’ principles promoted by Prince Charles and the Urban Villages Forum since the 1990s.

These are some views of the area to the north of the development, just off Butt Road.

The entrance off Butt Road seems to be half-finished. There’s some interesting detail on the gable to the left of the entrance, but the rest lacks any fine articulation.

secondary entrance

This part of the development is pretty much based on Victorian architectural styles, with Poundbury-esque Victorian lamp posts (similar in many ways to the approach adopted in Fairford Leys). I wonder if these couldn’t have been low-level, particularly where there are no vehicles (and they are near to what look like bedroom windows on this photo). It’s a pity the opportunity was not taken to provide a more interesting facade to terminate this vista.

I like the use of the building line, with some dwellings straight off the footpath, others with small front gardens and a little planting, some with raised ground floors. Many Victorian streets have similar profiles, and suffer a similar problem – they were not designed for cars, or with bins and cycle storage. The problem of bin storage and collection is a long-standing one in many neighbourhoods.

At Colchester, cars are dealt with by providing rear courts. This provides the streets themselves with a much better environment, but as shown below, there are already yellow lines on the streets and people parking on the road in front of their houses.

Garland Road. The protruding gable detail at the end of the street terminates this vista. I like the gravel strip defining the edge-of-footpath on the left, incorporating steps up to front doors and gas meter access. Someone ought to design a gas meter cover that actually looks nice.

The use of decent materials, repeated porch and window details with well-proportioned openings creates a strong rhythm and feel of quality.

Part of the energy village. Good proportions, and facade, good use of materials.

Caernarvon castle square

Caernarvon’s a pretty amazing town. The castle dominates one side of the town square, linking the commercial hub to the Menai Strait, and the city walls are intact, providing a strong physical and historic context for the town. The castle itself is also very impressive.

A few years ago, the town square was dominated by vehicular routes, and was looked tired and run-down (see this website).  Enclosed on all sides and linking via four or five streets to surrounding areas it’s a location that deserved a full make-over, to breath new life into the heart of the town. The recently completed public works have done just that.

Since the work several years ago at Kensington High Street removing railings from the road side, and the consequent improvements in pedestrian safety, there are now a number of ‘shared space’ projects in the UK where pedestrians are prioritised in spaces shared with vehicle. Completed in 2009, Caernarvon Castle square is one of the largest recent shared space schemes I’ve seen.

The square is simply set out, with an area for the market to the south and street furniture together with tree planting and changes in material indicating a number of potential vehicle routes.

Observing from a cafe at the southern end of the square you can watch the interaction between people and traffic. Without any clear signage, drivers are unsure where to drive, or what route to take across the square, slowing their speeds. The lack of clear pedestrian separation also means that drivers are careful to negotiate the space with courtesy to pedestrians and cyclists.

A number of discrete finger-post signs are located in the corners of the square together with cycle parking – the only other parking originally set out was for disabled drivers and taxis, although now there seems to be a parking area to the east of the plaza adjacent to the water feature.

People using the square seem to mix without any real danger. As I watched the square was used by cyclists, taxis, cars and a coach party, shoppers and tourists. The new shared space seems to have invigorated the community feel of the square, and even on a cold day there were people chatting in the street, sitting at the tables and chairs, and lingering outside cafes. These are the spaces of social vitality that make a town viable, the ‘Great Good Places‘ as the social urbanist Ray Oldenburg describes them.

If I have one disappointment with Caernarvon town square, it is the railings that have been retained at some of the vehicular entrance points, and the fact that not all of the ugly street signage clutter has been able to be removed. I hope that other towns and cities will be bold enough to adopt this shared space approach with their focal public, civic spaces.

The other clear opportunity is to link the square better with the parking area for visitors to the Castle. At the moment the route from car park to square is pretty grim – you get to see some run down backs of buildings and blank retaining walls. But my understanding is that when some more money has been generated (bring on the Tax Increment Fund!), a new grand flight of steps will be cut into the western end of the square.

route to square from public car park by marina

This will lead nicely down to the marina area, where there is an obvious further opportunity for major improvements. I’d be excited if I lived here, to see what further public works could deliver.