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February 27, 2006 || 3:52 pm
Housing density

Again...another week, another report. This time its the Policy Exchange promoting some seriously muddled thinking about family housing in cities and a version of planning gain levy which would apparently promote more family housing rather than 'too dense' flats, save our green spaces and make 'communities' roll over with happiness every time a developer wanted to build something in their area, rather than standing up and complaining as they apparently do all the time now.

There are two linked themes in here - the meaning of 'density' and how to provide a good urban environment for families. These themes cropped up a month or two ago in the ippr report on city centre living that concluded that city centres shouldn't try to accommodate families, and the myriad other attacks on 'density' that complain that the government's new targets are making our cities crammed and unsustainable, forcing families out. And many other recent pieces of commentary have criticised the regeneration of our town and city centres into monocultural zones for the young and childless, unwelcoming for families and lacking a real sense of community, blaming this on the culture of density stemming in part from the first urban task force report.

In a way, there's a point here. The way that local and national government is now measuring density does tilt the market towards one- and two-bed flats, because they insist on measuring in dwellings per hectare (dph), rather than habitable rooms per hectare (hrh). This, quite honestly, is stupid, because you can more profitably meet a target of, say, 200 dph, by building one bedroom flats than by building three bedroom homes, so the result is a monocultural population of transient 'first time buyers' who move on after three years and who stimulate demand for bars, clubs and clothes stores, rather than the more mixed economy and generous public realm demanded by families. Whereas, if you had a target of 400 hrh, it would be quite possible to meet this in four bedroom houses or flats.

This plays into the hands of the lobby that is trying to create a 'backlash against density' by citing the monothematic nature of a lot of new 'dense' development. They are using the facts to suit their own ends, of course, and to lobby for a deregulation of land use. The likes of CPRE, in their strange confluence of interests with radical urbanists and Richard Rogers, keep arguing for density and brownfield development. But they should keep their arguments valid and cut off the 'anti-density' lobby at its root by pushing for this fundamental change in the way density gets measured in this country.

The London Plan tries to do so by giving guidelines for both dph and hrh, but doesn't really go far enough and still makes a presumption for higher densities meaning more, smaller dwellings by giving guidelines for the number of habitable rooms per dwelling that should be achieved for different zones - less for the 'denser' areas near good transport, and larger dwellings for the areas further out. Though who needs to live closer to a public transport node - a mother juggling pushchairs, shopping and children, or a single young person with a handbag or briefcase?

The other point - how to provide family-friendly cities - is more loaded with assumptions. The first persistent myth is that families can't live happily at 'high' densities. To debunk which, just look at the fantastic family housing in New York, Paris or even most of London. Design is the issue - providing generous internal and external spaces, not microflats, with decent balconies, roof gardens, communal gardens, pavements to play on as Jane Jacobs observed in the 1970s. The second issue is the quality of the public realm and of the local social infrastructure. Again, generosity and space for pleasure: greenery, wide pavements, pocket parks, corner playgrounds, and schools, corner shops, activities that include all ages, space just to wander around and enjoy watching city life go by. This is the real issue - all of this costs money, of course, and local authorities simply find it easier, in effect, to designate areas child-free zones and not to have to worry about schools, nurseries, doctors and playgrounds. Section 106 - the current version of 'planning gain' that developers are meant to pay - goes mostly into grotty social housing (again, not generally for families despite the affordability of family housing being much a much greater issue) built in the most inaccessible corners of sites or neighbourhoods, not into infrastructure that might actually improve quality of life.

This is the issue that the Policy Exchange paper tries to address, but in fact muddles through in a horrible way. It proposes that the 'market' says that families would rather live in suburban-style housing, but that developers are stopped from building on greenfield sites and instead build on the "allotments, playing fields, parks and gardens" inside cities (a strange reversal of the 'selling off the playing fields' critique, given the right-wing nature of the PE). So, their deeply illogical conclusion is not that the greenbelt should be loosened up, or that better quality housing should be built inside cities without compromising on public space, but that communities should in effect be bribed not to object to their allotments being replaced by crap microflats, by a planning gain levy on development sites. If anyone can explain how that is logical or desirable, please let me know.

Every time this topic comes up in the office, we groan. One of my directors has four children, lives in a Barbican skyscraper, and is moving to an even more extraordinary city centre flat that she's building for herself practically on Old Street roundabout. She doesn't see any contradiction between her family life and living dead central in a buzzing part of the city. The real problem lies in the lack of investment in the public realm and social infrastructure that mixed family neighbourhoods require. To get this right depends on more bravery on the part of local government, and national (the current proposals for a new kind of planning gain certainly don't achieve this) to demand better quality development that in itself incorporates a decent public realm, rather than just offsetting its inadequacies by putting money into an ill-defined pot; and more commitment to the idea that city neighbourhoods can contain and should provide for both families and 'first-time buyers'. Social infrastructure and the public realm is what creates the 'sustainable communities' that we're meant to be aiming for. It needs to be built into development, not added on or compensated for, when it's lacking.

1 comments

1 Comments:

Given you are so well argued and articulate on this, do you think you can get your views in to even more prominent places such as newspapers etc. You may well be going down that route anyways, but you seem so insightful on policy flaws that it is a shame this input isn't going to opinion formers and policy makers although maybe it is.

B

By Anonymous Ben, at 1:32 pm  

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