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By createstreets, Apr 25 2017 01:12PM

Joseph Jutras, founder of the Institution of Traditional Architecture in the Netherlands, writes:

It is a good question and it can be tempting to answer in financial terms. Beauty is good for the local economy, especially when considering property values and tourism. For example, compare tourism in Paris to Brasilia. Or two small cities in Belgium: Bruges and Liège. There is no question that beauty brings in the money. Or perhaps one can go the wellness route and talk about patient recovery times and levels of crime. Or sustainability. Beautiful buildings are maintained. Ugly buildings are demolished and new ones built in their place. However, these approaches are functional, intellectual arguments; and if we are honest with ourselves, they are erected to justify a far more basic truth. We should build beautiful simply because we like it. Beauty brings us pleasure, and that should be enough.

Granted, there is a spectrum of how sensitive people are to beauty. On one end of the spectrum someone might thrive living in a concrete box. On the other end, someone might crumble living in the same environment. Sadly, many do crumble and the social effects are devastating: addiction, depression, suicide, abuse. Naturally beauty isn’t the panacea that will fix all these issues, but it’s clear that beauty alleviates them while a concrete box exacerbates them. For those that can thrive living in a concrete box, let me pose some parallel questions.

Why go to a good movie? Why not just pay the money, sit in the seat for a couple of hours, and watch drivel? You are doing the same thing, and spending the same amount of money and time either way.

Or, why look for meaningful work? Why not just find a job, any job really? If the pay and hours are roughly the same, does it matter if the work is meaningful or if you like your colleagues?

Why eat good food? Isn’t the point of eating just to get calories in your body so you can work, so you can earn money so you can go to movies and buy food so you can eat so you can work…

Aristotle observed that we do many things for the sake of something else. As Julian Baggini writes:

“We eat to live, work to pay the mortgage, study to pass exams and so on. But unless at least one thing is done for its own sake, there is no point in doing anything. Not everything can be a means to an end: there must be ends which are valuable in their own right. So if living must at some stage be valuable in itself if it is to be worthwhile, why not here and now?”

Here’s the trick: with the right attitude many things, even common activities, can be viewed as valuable in their own right. Take eating and exercise for example. Viewed as a means to an end, eating is performed to ingest calories and exercise to burn these calories. However, eating and exercise can be much more than this. Enjoying the ritual of a nice meal and the taste of good food makes life better. Some people run to stay fit and it becomes a chore. Others run for the joy of it and it makes life better – and as a bonus, they still stay fit.

We can look at buildings through the same lens. In their basic sense buildings provide shelter and security. But they can and should be so much more. Beautiful buildings make life better simply because we like beauty. It creates a fuller experience and enhances the simple joy of being alive. As a bonus we get all the good stuff associated with beautiful buildings like financial gain, sustainability, and wellbeing.

So watch good movies, find meaningful work, jog without the headphones, the heartrate monitor, and the GPS watch, eat good food, use the good china, and… for our town planners, architects, and developers; build beautiful! It’s not hedonism (at least not in the current use of the word), it’s humanism.


By createstreets, Mar 15 2017 03:03PM

In the early 1990s, Washington DC was not just the capital, but also the murder capital, of the United States. Despite this, I found it a surprisingly enjoyable place to live, when I spent the year out before my diploma there, working for the eminent classical architect Allan Greenberg.

I lived in a neighbourhood called Mount Pleasant, which is on the edge of the prosperous North West quarter between 16th Street and North Creek Park. Though pretty, it was quite a violent area which had experienced riots the year before. I was completely oblivious to this when signing the tenancy agreement on a charming 1920s Queen Anne-style terraced house, which I shared with two strangers, but never felt any danger. My housemates and I used to play an improvised version of fives in a nearby parking lot, which I wouldn't have considered had I felt threatened.

The same Neo-Queen Anne terrace houses continue down the road in Adams Morgan, a district much like London's Camden Town. Some were painted bright colours and a few had vast murals across their facades. It is a place with bars and restaurants from all over the world, reflecting the diverse ethnic population. I remember going to lots of Ethiopian restaurants and Club Heaven and Hell, a nightclub in a scruffy terraced house, with only a half-hearted attempt to convert it into its new function.

My route to work took me south-west from Adams Morgan to Dupont Circle, a traffic island where Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues dive underground, making the junction relatively free of traffic. Dupont Circle is in effect a small urban park, with a Beaux Arts fountain in the middle and chess tables around the edge. Overlooking the circle is the Patterson Mansion, a glorious Italianate house designed by Stanford White in 1903, and sole relic of the extravagant residences of earlier eras. Dupont Circle has the Bohemian charm of Adams Morgan while being slightly more upmarket. It made a pleasant place to spend my lunch breaks.

A mile or so south of Dupont Circle you come to the Mall, the sacred heart of both American government and the city itself, and an architectural statement of power in the manner of Versailles. The Mall is a vast park centred on the Washington Monument. The White House and the Jefferson Memorial terminate the north-south axis, while the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial mark the ends of the much longer east-west axis. A huge perfectly rectangular lake runs down the middle and the Potomac River cuts into the south side, making the Jefferson Memorial seem like an island. Meanwhile the north side is lined with massive classical temples, housing various museums and government institutions.

Recently, watching the opening credits of 'House of Cards', I was reminded of the sheer beauty of Washington's classical monuments, sitting within a relatively modest low-rise urban setting. The juxtaposition is most clearly seen on 16th Street, where a full-size replica of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is surrounded by an edgy urban environment more suitable for a Quentin Tarantino film. It is an unlikely location for one of the seven wonders of the world, but works in its own way. I remain intrigued by the surreal combination of small-town America with the crushing grandeur of classical temples to political power.

Although Washington has its problems, it displays many of the qualities of good urbanism. Restrictions on building heights mean that the Capitol, unlike St Paul's, is not dwarfed by skyscrapers, and the urban grain creates a backdrop against which the classical monuments can shine. I believe that a good city should be densely populated without resorting to skyscrapers, and this was my approach for the Royal Mail site at London's Mount Pleasant, where we achieved a similar density to a high-rise proposal using mediumrise mansion blocks on a network of streets. Seeing all the towers being built in our capital, I feel that it is unfortunate that London does not have the same legislation as Washington. It would make a better city.

Francis Terry is an architect and the founder and director of Francis Terry and Associates. He has worked with Create Streets on numerous projects including Mount Pleasant, Create Boulevards and Little Oval.

By createstreets, Feb 28 2017 09:56PM

Ruaidhri Tulloch is an architect and former SPAB scholar. He works in the Paris region in the social and rental housing sector. He writes (click here for the full article):

There are plenty of differences in building regulations and planning between the UK and France. The certainties in the codified French planning system make it relatively simple for a small developer to identify a potential building site and evaluate if a viable project can be produced there. This is particularly important on small plots, the kind that make a gap in the street.

These unused gap sites are everywhere particularly in the British townscape. There are mini markets, one story retailers, fast food outlets, detached houses in streets that should be denser, endless outside car parks and plenty of unusable 'green' space. In French this type of potential infill site is evocatively called une dent creuse, a missing tooth.

In France a developer is able to know from day one what the planning system will let him build. This means he can put together realistic financial plans from the outset. Risk is taken out of putting a project together. A small developer does his financial analysis and buys the plot. Normally though he prefers to sign a contract with the property owner promising to buy in a few months once he has planning permission. That's better for cash flow and there are of course some minor risks in the French system.

Now the little street plots we talked about are still economically tricky to develop even without planning risk. The car park, detached house or retail unit already there has worth. A developer has to demolish and rebuild and yet still increase the worth in sales or as a rental landlord. He's going to have to put together a tidy little project with as many flats as possible.

Building regulations are another hurdle that the developer has to deal with. Again, in France the system is easier for the small developer trying to build 10 or 20 flats. Fire safety requirements are less demanding in France at this scale, perhaps because ladder rescue is not totally discounted as in the UK.

Another interesting difference is found in the rules for basement car parks. In an outer London borough or provincial town centre, the target clients for selling these flats are maybe first time buyers. The developer is going to need to include parking in his project. In France unlike the UK, basement car parks under small groups of flats are commonplace, why is that?

Again the UK system is phenomenally more demanding on small developments. Ventilation requirements for single level basement car parks in France are almost 1/10th those demanded by the UK building regulations1. However that is only if the developer is hoping to put together an economical small project with natural ventilation only. If he is planning a large multi-level car park, like he might build under a fancy new tower block, he's better off in the UK, where requirements for ventilation machinery actually appear more lenient.

Cities were traditionally built building by building, plot by plot. They generally evolved as their population increased again by re-building plot by plot. Providing covered horse stabling or car parking has always been part of this way of doing things.

Economies of scale work against mid and small sized development projects. A healthy planning and regulatory system should take care not to compound this problem with more bias against small development. This is sadly the case in the UK today. Small and medium size developers, the ones that can only work at this smaller scale, are key to a healthy competitive house building sector.

In France it is easier to develop the small humdrum 'gap' sites in neighbourhoods where people want to live. Furthermore, because the French planning system is form-code based, planners and local councillors are by default pro-actively involved in development. To return to the dental analogy, we could say France’s planning system and simpler regulations make it easier to replace missing teeth, create kissable streets and put the smile back in neglected neighbourhoods.

"Hey, while I am in the chair dentist, I kind of regret those high-rise fangs I had put in last year, could you remove them?"

"That's tricky. More painful to pull them out than put them in."

"But they hurt and make me look evil..."

By createstreets, Feb 8 2017 12:50AM

Major advances for the cause of community-led co-design in today’s Housing White Paper reflecting Create Streets’ research, publications and policy suggestions

Well done to the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP and Gavin Barwell MP and their teams for their important steps on community support, design codes, improved planning certainty and encouraging popular street-based high density development in the Housing White Paper

Much of the ‘public debate’ about today’s Housing White Paper will focus on the change (or lack of change) to the green belt policy and the announcements about obliging developers to deliver housing quickly. These are important subjects. However, ‘below the line’ there were some axiomatically important announcements that, in time, could just help change our planning system for the better and very fundamentally indeed.

Never forget, how very odd our system is in comparative and historic terms; 1940s statist in conception and very organic and common law in its execution it combines a view on nearly everything and utter certainty on nearly nothing. Many foreign planning systems are less ambitious in their scope but more rule-based with greater certainty about what can and cannot be delivered.

To make matters worse, many of the rules that we do have aren’t very good and make it harder to deliver the type of finely grained, high density traditional town that many people love – and will pay for. Polling and pricing data also consistently shows that too many modern developments do not achieve the same levels of desirability or resident satisfaction as their historic predecessors.

Until we evolve the questions from ‘how do we build new homes’ to ‘how do we make new homes more popular’ it will continue to be hard to build sufficient homes.

Fundamental change of the planning system and housing market can’t be done with a ‘big bang’ or the system would fall over and house building collapse further. This is in no one’s interests. That is why most of the Housing White Paper is about ‘forcing more homes through the current pipe.’ But, in time, we need to widen the shape of the pipe – and do so with popular consent. In this way the planning system and sub-functional housing market can evolve to one that is better able to help residents and communities confidently and visually express what they like and what they will support. Then in turn it can provide greater clarity to developers about what is and is not acceptable in local neighbourhoods.

The good news is that today’s Housing White Paper starts this process with a range of practical and incremental steps which permit communities more clearly to express and explain what they like and will support so that the system can become more certain and better able to deliver.

We are also delighted, and proud, to be able to say that many of these proposals appear to reflect our research, community work, publications and policy suggestions. Our community work and research at Mount Pleasant was even cited by name - on p.31 if you are interested.

Here are our eleven quick observations on the White Paper – and what we’ve managed to read of it so far.

One: much of the analysis of the problem seems correct. Despite the noises off about the impact of mortgage rates, the government are right to keep focused on the core underlying issue of lack of supply. They are also right to be worried about the ludicrous levels of concentration in the supply of new homes and in worrying about the quality and quantity of the rental sector.

Two: we’re delighted to see some fundamental understanding and focus on the link between quality of design and popular support for housing which we’ve been calling for. This majorly reflects our research and data – and is a definite win. Or as the White Paper puts it; “Giving communities a stronger voice in the design of new housing to drive up the quality and character of new development, building on the success of neighbourhood planning.”

Three: the focus on use of public sector land is correct. Very good news (and a win for Create Streets), is the Government’s recognition that this can’t just be a model of sale for the highest price but needs to involve public / private sector working together. Paragraph 1.27 reads; “we propose to ensure all authorities can dispose of land with the benefit of planning permission which they have granted to themselves. We will also consult on extending their flexibility to dispose of land at less than best consideration and welcome views on what additional powers or capacity they need to play a more active role in assembling land for development (including whether additional powers are needed to prevent ‘ransom strips’ delaying or preventing development, especially in brownfield regeneration).” More details are then set out about how this might work.

Four: the focus on estate regeneration is correctly balanced with a proposal (para 1.28) to “amend national policy to encourage local planning authorities to consider the social and economic benefits of estate regeneration, and use their planning powers to help deliver this to a high standard.” It is right to stress that estate regeneration must be done well. Some recent examples have not been a success, and these have understandably been the highest profile cases. However, done properly, with genuine resident support and input, it can be.

Five: we welcome the focus empowering communities through a focus on Neighbourhood Planning and increasing its possibilities. In our work we have found that communities do not always realise the potential of Neighbourhood Planning to set where new development should go and what it should look like, so we are pleased to see the proposals to change the NPPF to ‘highlight the opportunities that neighbourhood plans present for identifying and allocating sites that are suitable for housing, drawing on the knowledge of local communities’ (1.33)

Six: development Orders and design Codes - A big win for Create Streets is the proposal change the NPPF to ‘encourage greater use of Local Development Orders and area-wide design codes (1.33). Design codes are a potentially transformative way for the UK planning system to bring about popular design whilst keeping certainty for housebuilders of all types. This is as outlined in the Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill of 2015, put forward by Lord Lexden.

Seven: we support the proposals to ‘expect local planning authorities to work with developers to encourage the sub-division of large sites.’ (1.33) This will encourage more housebuilding from a wider range of actors.

Eight: better, proper consultation - we are delighted to see the inclusion of visual tools and local consultation as proposed improvements to the National Planning Policy Framework. This is a big win for Create Streets – as our community work and research has shown, people respond positively when they are genuinely engaged with and when visual tools that genuinely give a sense of what new development will look and feel like is used, rather than (often misleading) industry jargon.

- Specifically, we are delighted with the proposals to ‘expect that local and neighbourhood plans (at the most appropriate level) and more detailed development plan documents (such as action area plans) should set out clear design expectations following consultation with local communities. This will provide greater certainty for applicants about the sort of design which is likely to be acceptable – using visual tools such as design codes that respond to local character and provide a clear basis for making decisions on development proposals; (1.46)

- This approach is emphasised and backed up by paragraph 1.48 which states, ‘To really feel involved in the process, we need to help local people to describe what good design and local character looks like in their view. The longer term ambition is that the Government will support the development of digital platforms on design, to create pattern-books or 3D models that can be implemented through the planning process and used to consult local people on potential designs for their area.

Nine: the White paper is absolutely right to recognise that high-density housing can be popular and attractive: ‘When people picture high-density housing, they tend to think of unattractive tower blocks, but some of the most desirable places to live in the capital are in areas of higher density mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets.’ (1.51) We are particularly pleased that they have chosen to cite our work at Mount Pleasant in the footnotes at this point!

Ten: we are pleased that the White Paper supports our belief that certain standards can have unintended negative consequences: In this way we are pleased that the proposed NPPF amendments include that plans and individual development proposals should;

- ensure that the density and form of development reflect the character, accessibility and infrastructure capacity of an area, and the nature of local housing needs; and

- take a flexible approach in adopting and applying policy and guidance that could inhibit these objectives in particular circumstances; for example, avoiding a rigid application of open space standards if there is adequate provision in the wider area. (para 1.53). However, more work will be needed to ensure this

- Supporting this, paragraph 1.55 states: ‘The use of minimum space standards for new development is seen as an important tool in delivering quality family homes. However the Government is concerned that a one size fits all approach may not reflect the needs and aspirations of a wider range of households. For example, despite being highly desirable, many traditional mews houses could not be built under today’s standards.’ We are pleased therefore that the White Paper makes the commitment to ‘make sure the standards do not rule out new approaches to meeting demand.’ (1.55) Clearly, this must not be a removal of space standards (which are a good thing) but a recognition of some of their perverse consequences

Eleven: the government are right to stress that the permission process needs to be faster but they should be stressing it needs to be more certain as well. It is lack of certainty that presents a barrier to entry and which makes it harder for smaller players to enter the housing supply market. We worry that the welcome steps to diversify the market could be undermined by this.

More to follow in the days to come but some very welcome signals and opportunities for the future. Our vision is for a planning and housing market ten or fifteen years from now which is fundamentally better at providing the sort of place where people want to live and where they thrive. This is a very important and welcome step in the right direction. We look forward to working with communities, local government, developers, researchers and government to move this forward.

By createstreets, Dec 1 2016 10:05AM

Flora Sutton revisits the Sutton Estate in the wake of the council’s decision to reject Affinity Sutton’s proposals to reduce the amount of housing and affordable housing on the site.

In 2015, Affinity Sutton, a housing association, proposed to demolish twelve of fifteen blocks of red brick, five-storey social housing in Chelsea. The other three were listed

The buildings are worn and torn but structurally sound. In its heyday, the Sutton Estate was exemplary; well-maintained and integrated into the surrounding streetscape. Today the brickwork is still perfectly intact and the terracotta detail worth thousands of pounds. The buildings are well spaced allowing for natural light to flood through. Architecturally, the estate is top of the class. It is home to the locals that form part of the permanent fabric of this Royal Borough.

Affinity Sutton’s plans proposed to knock down the buildings and knock up in its place a soulless replica made up of 106 luxury apartments for private sale and 318 homes for social housing. These plans reduced the number of social housing by 30 percent and the overall density of the estate by 8 percent, from 462 to 424. The target market would have been the super-rich snapping up valuable land while the residents are decanted off around the country.

Thankfully, officials of the RBKC council have advised the plans should be rejected on three grounds:

1. The plans failed to show that the maximum amount of affordable housing would be provided. There would have been a net loss of social rented space. When I was investigating back in 2015, there was a complete vacuum in provision for the 73 flats used for sheltered housing. These were lived in by elderly residents with a warden to keep them safe, a garden and a communal living area.

2. The quality of design of the new estate was ‘insufficient’. A less tactful evaluation by a resident was that they were ‘mediocre plans by a third-rate architect.’ The new building design was nothing on the old; a soulless replication of a set of buildings with life and atmosphere.

3. No agreed S106 obligations to secure affordable housing and appropriate infrastructure required to make the development acceptable. (S106 relates to the provision of affordable housing among other conditions.)

Another Save our Sutton campaigner commented on the local media that the plans were, ‘a bit like using Chippendale for firewood and replacing it with something from Ikea, then expecting everyone to congratulate them on a bold new design.’ There was certainly more than a hint of flat pack about the new buildings, and to those who know the beauty of the existing estate, flat pack wouldn’t quite cut it.

Nevertheless, this has been a hard-won battle, and the future is not inevitably secure. The local campaigners Save our Sutton have fought hard, racking up nearly 11,000 signatures to date to protect their homes and the working-class enclave. On 15th November, at the town hall, the decision on the officials’ recommendations to reject the plans was ratified. This kind of victory is far from the norm, in a London where land is eye-wateringly valuable. Just around the corner, cranes feast on the ruins of Marlborough School; an equally attractive and community-centric primary school. It has been obliterated to make way for John Lewis part two, backed by Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley. The fact that Sutton still and will stand is testament to the perseverance and strength of a group of committed campaigners and to local democracy getting it right. Save our Sutton has been a community effort that shows that despite appearances, Chelsea retains some sense of the village life it has been so celebrated for.

The residents hope that there will be improvements made to the buildings. Where Affinity Sutton are correct in their analysis is when they point out that the buildings are not currently in peak state. Specifically, the association decreed that the apartments were unfit for modern living. The campaigners have accused the association of wilful neglect so that they could use this argument in the logic for their plans. But with the plans now rejected, there is much that can be done to bring these wonderful Sutton buildings back to the former glory. But will Affinity Sutton want to do it?

Andrew Barshall, who spearheaded the campaign, said that they are ‘looking at the feasibility of double mansard roofs for several of the buildings, outside lift blocks, and joining blocks at the back giving a courtyard effect in the centre of them.’ Another superficial amendment which would improve the overall patina would be wooden window frames to replace the modern plastic ones that stick out in their incongruity.

Three cheers! One for grassroots activism, another for the continuation of a streets friendly estate, and a third for a wonderful work of architecture being given the attention it deserves. ‘But, this is only a battle we have won,’ says Barshall, ‘and we now need to get someone to step in and do what's best for Chelsea and the residents.’ As Rocky once said, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over.’

Flora Sutton is a journalist and a member of Create Streets.

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