With the housing white paper due out imminently and talk of building in the Green Belt Julia Park sets out what new developments need to win over the Nimby’s.
Possibly worse than the prospect of having new housing built in our back yard is being branded a ‘Nimby’. In truth, Nimbyism is a relative term rather than an absolute one. Few could honestly say we would be as happy to look out onto a new housing estate as we would to have a view of open countryside, but most of us understand that we desperately need more housing, that it has to go somewhere and that a degree of compromise is inevitable. Unfortunately, it seems that the bigger our back yard, the more we mind.
In many ways, building new settlements on green field sites feels like the easy option. In practical terms it’s likely to be easier and quicker than building on brownfield land, but emotionally it’s much harder; particularly when the green field is in the Green Belt. This is about more than nostalgia and Nimbyism. It is right to be concerned about indiscriminate reduction of land for recreation, food-growing or forestry and threats to ecosystems and habitats.
The quid pro quo for accepting new development in the countryside is that it only takes place in carefully selected locations, and is seriously good
While Sadiq Kahn is, for the moment at least, sticking to his manifesto guns and promising not to touch London’s Green Belt, there are plenty of signs that the government is prepared to be more bullish. Sajid Javid’s New Year’s resolution is to take on his conservative colleagues, many of who live in the shires. So which of them is right?
Based on what we’ve heard so far; I’d say neither. It doesn’t feel sensible to maintain a blanket ban on any encroachment into the Green Belt because all polices should be periodically re-assessed in light of new priorities. Not all of the designated land has high ecological, agricultural or amenity value. Some parts would barely be missed and housing would be more useful. But it is naïve to expect us to give up the Green Belt, or even a green field site, lightly. The quid pro quo for accepting new development in the countryside is that it only takes place in carefully selected locations, and is seriously good.
The new ‘Garden Towns’ and ‘Garden Villages’ represent an unparalleled opportunity to create better, more sustainable ways of living. In his New Year announcement, the housing minister did talk about green space, schools and infrastructure but that’s nothing more than you would expect any sizeable new housing estate to provide. He mentioned high quality design but without demonstrating what that means. Hijacking the terminology of Ebenezer Howard without offering a fraction of his vision, shouldn’t be enough to persuade us.
Urban designers, architects, landscape architects, engineers and ecological experts need to be involved in each of these developments from the start. To be genuinely sustainable they must achieve considerably higher densities than traditional suburban housing, and deal with issues like car parking in a different way. That will require new house types that reflect the current and future lifestyles of a range of households and naturally lead to genuinely mixed communities. Plenty of people will be very happy with a small garden or terrace, provided that their home is light and spacious and they have access to allotments and shared play spaces. The courtyard housing at Accordia in Cambridge is one of many successful precedents and we are beginning to see interesting design solutions for older people and multi-generational households.
We don’t need to park our car outside our home either. It’s almost ten years since my eye-opening trip to Vauban, a new, high density, low rise, sustainable neighbourhood, created in the German city of Freiburg in 1994. Now home to 5,500 people, a large proportion of the characterful homes are self- or custom-built, and all meet demanding standards for energy use and air quality. The narrow roads are primarily spaces for socialising and play because vehicular use is restricted to drop-off and pick-up. Communal parking is located on the edges of the village; not more than 300m from anyone’s front door, but remote enough to make an enormous difference to the feel of the place and how people interact. It felt sociable, supportive and immensely civilised. The residents we met talked about feeling healthier, happier and more relaxed.
New garden towns and villages should replicated elements of Vauban, but go further. By using swales and balancing ponds to deal with surface water and create new habitats and high quality amenity spaces, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation development in Derwenthorpe in Yorkshire shows how landscape can be integrated into new development in ways that are functional and beautiful. Designed by Richard Partington Architects and built by Barratt; it’s in a different league from a typical volume housebuilder development.
Government has a vital role to play. To date we’ve heard little more than the usual rhetoric of catchy names, big numbers and a pledge to relax planning requirements as an incentive
Virgin sites allow bold ideas to be realised and infrastructure and services to be planned, co-ordinated and fully integrated into the masterplan. New schools can be conceived as community hubs. Their pools, gyms and theatres, art, music and cookery rooms, playgrounds and sports pitches could, and should, be open to the wider community in the evenings and at weekends. There are precedents for this too, but not nearly enough. Yes, it makes insurance and management more complicated; but by no means impossible - and it puts young people at the centre of the community.
Larger developments will warrant a local hospital; probably not for major surgery or even A&E, but for routine ops, maternity care, children’s clinics, diagnostics and check-ups. They should offer GP, dental, ophthalmic, occupational therapy, mental health, counselling and pharmacy services, and incorporate a day care facility, co-ordinate social care and provide meals-on-wheels for older and disabled residents.
None of this is going to happen by accident. It will only happen when a local authority is confident enough to articulate a clear vision, appoint a multi-disciplinary design team to prepare a masterplan and recruit a development partner committed to doing the best they can, not the least they can get away with.
Government has a vital role to play. To date we’ve heard little more than the usual rhetoric of catchy names, big numbers and a pledge to relax planning requirements as an incentive. Ministers should be instilling confidence and insisting that these new garden towns and villages epitomise what well-designed, sustainable living environments should look like, how they can support new communities and bring wider benefits; now and in the future.
Perhaps it’s right to be a Nimby until they do. How these sites are taken forward affects us all; the design proposals should be reviewed by a panel of experts and made available to the public. If and when we are convinced that the end will justify the means, then we should welcome green field development - even in the Green Belt, and even in our own back yard.
Julia Park is head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein