Nicholas Boys Smith argues for beautiful ‘gentle density.’
For too long a fixation on urban high-rises has taken priority over more popular houses with gardens
Over 20 years ago, Lord Rogers proposed an urban renaissance. His task force argued that Britain’s towns should be better places. The argument was strong. It has led to many important improvements in cities like London and Manchester. But it was not flawless.
Some subsequent development visions have made a naively unnuanced argument that high density development is the future and the answer to all our housing needs.
This has often been a very expensive and elite vision of gleaming glass and of tiny flats piled high. This vision works for the rich in city centres who can afford the stratospheric service charges and have second homes in Hampshire. It’s not so good for everyone else. And the broad mass of the British people keeps rejecting it.
Like most people in most countries, they continue to seek the joys of the garden suburb: the place to call your own, the places “which even when they are communal are not official: the pub … the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’” as George Orwell fortuitously put it. The most consistently popular components of our homes in every pricing study ever done are more space and more garden.
Governments can aspire to a pure urban renaissance. The people will seek something else. Even pre-Covid, the most popular form of home was the private house. People want space.
But of course, this very understandable desire is not without consequences. Sprawling suburbs need a lot more countryside to build upon. That is, to put it mildly, not always very popular with the people who live there already.
We have to find a path between the extremes of lumpish blocks crammed into small urban sites on the one hand and squattishly low-density sub-suburbs on the other, corrupting the original concept of the garden community and wastefully squandering their way across our beloved countryside.
Fortunately, there is an answer that often works. The late Sir Roger Scruton and I argued for it in our Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report to the Government last year.
It is what I call gentle density, a network of beautiful streets and squares, of mansion blocks and terraced and semi-detached houses anchored around real middles, a village green or a local corner-shop; tree-lined avenues, streets that children can safely walk along, beautiful houses that cherish and evolve the local vernacular and nestle thoughtfully in the landscape.
Such places tend to be more popular and more prosperous. No one ever complained that a town had too many squares. We know from the pricing analysis and from preference surveys that the most popular streets in which to live and work are not formed of glass canyons or featureless, endlessly unvaried boxes. People are people. They respond more warmly and innately to streets which have coherent complexity, colour, texture, and whose forms and features invite you to walk or mimic, however imperceptibly, some of the patterns of nature.
Some inspired landowners, developers and community groups are already creating such places. The Prince of Wales is the best known but there are others. Normally such places are created by small firms and with profound levels of neighbourly involvement or community leadership. This is no coincidence.
How do we make this the norm? Part of the answer is to set much clearer, more visual standards that new homes and places should be locally popular and beautiful. This makes it much easier for small firms, neighbourhoods and self-builders to get a look-in.
A recent letter writer to The Telegraph, Roger White, hit the nail on the head when he observed that “the schemes that fit in best are invariably those by local firms that know and understand the materials and traditions of the area … if there could be some guarantee of better design, and if it were made easier for small firms to compete against the big boys, communities would be much more likely to accept the need for new housing.”
If we are going to create new homes they need to be in beautiful and popular places. We should demand nothing less.