Housing is one of the major concerns of LI President Noel Farrer, and he is deeply engaged both at policy level and in the work of his practice, Farrer Huxley Associates. Here he explains how he believes landscape professionals could improve housing to create a sense of community and shares some examples from his practice.
The global population is growing rapidly and my generation has witnessed the tipping point into a world that is predominantly urbanised. This puts pressure on resources, energy and infrastructure. The economic, environmental and housing crises are all problems of urbanisation. Humanity has always faced crises of one sort or another, but is there anything we can do as these multiple global challenges appear to collide? Many people talk about a general malaise in today’s society over individual political activism and how people feel overwhelmingly disillusioned. The reason for this is complex, but it has something to do with our democratic structures not being democratic enough. People do not feel they have a voice that will be heard or the power to bring about change.
Talking to many young people in the landscape profession, there seems to be a disconnect between the ideas and principles that they learn in college and the professional practice they engage in. What is the relationship between ideas and action? There are countless historical precedents where ideas have gained sufficient momentum to bring about large-scale action. I believe that we are at a point in history when we need this kind of change. The current systems do not work and the consequences of continuing on this trajectory are too great to ignore. How do we get to the point of action? Kelvin Campbell believes it takes a ‘Massive Small’ approach – a deluge of small changes that harness a collective power to bring big difference. Many of us know that we want change, but sometimes it is hard to know what the right kind of change looks like.
Let’s take the housing crisis as an example; building on the green belt or on greenfield sites seems a straight-forward approach when we need so many houses in such a short space of time. But this applies a simple solution to a complex problem. The government is looking for short-term results in the form of volume housing developments, for the primary benefit of its political status. As with any blunt instrument, the long-term prognosis is not good. The implications of this approach are on a scale not yet understood. If we did understand them, we would not stand for it.
The row upon row of sprawling, bland houses that are currently being built on the edges of towns lack any of the consideration for or investment in landscape that are necessary in order to make robust and desirable places. The current system puts an unbearable pressure on the public sector to deliver numbers of houses. The NPPF with its ‘presumption to build’ in the absence of adopted local plans has led to convenience for and spurious viability claims by house builders, resulting in reluctant acceptance of poor development, purely to meet the numbers targets.
This delivers bad development that will negatively affect lives. A doughnut-shaped growth pattern is emerging in many of our towns, with allocated housing sites being placed on the edge of town, eating up valuable greenfield sites, demanding more car use and adding pressure to services that are already over-stretched, as they have to reach ever greater distances. This has a devastating effect on the health of the town centre and the high street.
It is because of reactive planning at the mercy of house builders and local authorities without the resources for coherent strategic planning that we find ourselves in this position. Nationally, more than 90% of allocated sites do not have a landscape architect. Placemaking is a concept that too often remains in university lecture halls and not in professional practice.
The Fabian Society’s document Pride of Place found that 68% of people felt that community spirit in Britain had declined in their lifetime and that this was a loss they did not want. The study also found that people defined ‘place’ in a much more ‘relational’ way than expected. While their surrounding environment was important, the polling found that people were more likely to identify with the people in their area rather than the physical place itself.
Jane Jacobs knew this when she talked about organising complexity – the role of the designer is to create conditions that give a place life. This means making places where a wide range of people can rub shoulders and create community. The trend towards increased loneliness in Britain, and the lack of good health, alongside the global issues of urbanisation and its impact on climate change, means that we must become much smarter. If we invest in building places that enable community and are resilient now, we will yield many societal, economic and environmental benefits in the future. We need cities that value the people who make them. If we want to change what our places look like, we have to change the decision-making processes that have given us the results we have now.
There needs to be a greater willingness to engage in the democratic process. Amanda Burden, when acting as director of planning in New York, understood that this meant that at the core of what makes a place work is not its buildings, but the spaces between them. The Building for Life 12 document, written by CABE, shows this too – community spaces are what people crave. Places where you don’t feel alone, where you feel safe, can express yourself and feel as though you belong. We must begin framing our political decisions through a placemaking lens and when we do this, we will find that many of our problems begin to be unlocked.
Over the 30 years of my career
working in the public and private sector, I have found that quality in the context of housing is complex and revolves around public realm. The difference between a place where people want to live and one where they do not, is found in the strength of the landscape that ties the built form together. Whether in
the smallest of landscape improvements or wholesale area- regeneration projects, the overwhelming feedback is that it is the reconnection of people with nature and the enabling power of well designed safe places that make the biggest and most transformational differences to people’s lives. The two case studies in this article are typical examples of how my practice tries, in a small way, to turn these ideas into action. On these and many other schemes, the feedback from those who live there is often simple,
‘I can hear bird song’, ‘I can smell the blossom’ or ‘I am happy to sit and wait for my friend’. They all represent the re-establishment of fundamental building blocks of social, happy and healthy lives. It is these that provide the motivation for all in the practice to do what we do.
I hope that as we look at our own personal and professional lives, we will all remember that making cities and towns is something that happens over many years and with many hands. Kelvin Campbell’s theory of ‘Massive Small’ is one that should inspire us to remember that change is possible when we choose to take part.
Barrow Maritime Streets – Barrow in Furness, Cumbria
In 2013 Barrow Borough Council (BBC) on the south western tip of the Lake District in Cumbria lodged a brief with the Landscape Institute for a competition to improve the public realm of a desperately poor
sink estate. The estate consists of 600 tenement flats. A two-bedder can be bought for £10k; 480 of these flats are empty; most of the blocks were in receivership. Yet the buildings are all protected in a Conservation Area. They are within easy walking distance of the town centre and next to BAE Systems’ main dock works, the largest employer in the area.
Chris Jones, BBC’s head of housing, wondered what to do. The blocks are privately owned limiting his ability to change them, but BBC owned, the public realm and the streets. He thought, ‘Could the transformation of the public realm make the difference?’. The competition was his quest to find an answer. The brief was no less than an invitation to see if landscape could unlock broken places.
Farrer Huxley Associates won the competition. We did it on the single premise that our scheme would seek to ensure that the unoccupied flats were filled.
We worked to identify a ‘tipping point’ that would make it a desirable place where people would want to live. The budget of £1m was limiting – we could not have everything. We could not even change half of the spaces on the estate. We plotted the routes that people take when they first come to the place. We limited our work to the smallest strategic area whilst retaining quality. The windy and harsh coastal environment limited planting all across the town. We identified that the tenements provided a sheltered micro climate. We worked with residents to rekindle social cohesion. We explored a garden club as a vehicle for residents to engage with place and each other. The scheme was to be green, as soft and inviting as possible. We believe that the power of plants will entice people to get involved and care for their environment.
Our masterplan became a sequence of spaces that maximize the impact of a visitor’s first impression. It is much greener and more flexible than what was there before, allowing the spaces to adapt to meet changing needs. Areas that could be for growing vegetables one year could be lawns or a play space the next, as demand dictated. The competition was unique as the shortlisted teams all had an active participation session with the estate residents who were central to selection. The confidence shown by residents in our approach formed the basis of positive and proactive iterative design development. This led to huge support for our work and a unanimous planning decision.
Our challenge is now being realised. We go on site in July 2015. This has been delayed but it is a delay we are happy to accept as the tenements have been bought out of receiver-ship and we are now coordinating works with the refurbishment of the flats. The magic of landscape to realise change is
Dover Court Estate, Islington, London N1
The London Borough of Islington (LBI) is rightly striving to meet its housing needs through a rigorous interrogation of its existing estate, such that the profit from housing can benefit and improve the whole neighbourhood. The central point is that this is a landscape-led approach where the new housing pays for better and additional affordable accommodation and, crucially, delivers a comprehensive landscape improvement that provides communal amenities, play, and an inviting and sociable landscape
We have worked closely with the architect PTEa to ensure the new buildings reinforce the landscape character, remove unsafe areas and provide a legible estate hierarchy with a series of beautiful spaces. The whole scheme is greener, and is working hard to contribute to local biodiversity and climate resilience.
Central to our work has been consultation with residents, and their recognition of, and support for, a better landscape for the whole community, both new and existing. This landscape recognition has seen the budget for the external works increase both as a percentage of the project budget and from £1.6m to £2.7m. The landscape here is the central plank of good place making.