Social Fabric

Place pride: why neighbourhood matters

Nicholas Boys Smith asks how can Britain reinvigorate its ‘little platoons’ and restitch its social fabric, in a talk he gave to Onward at the Unherd Club in central London

In advance of Create Streets’s major Restitch summit into how we reweave our social fabric, I was recently asked by the think tank Onward to talk about how we can reinvigorate society’s ‘little platoons’, Edmund Burke’s famous epithet for the necessarily essential role that associations of tradition, context and neighbourhood play in human flourishing. It is a phrase that has been much cited among conservative writers over the last 30 years. Most recently, David Skelton’s 2019 book, Little Platoons, took the example of his hometown of Consett to link the concept to the ‘levelling up’ of ‘left behind towns.’ But it’s not a phrase without some resonance on the left as well. Maurice Glasman and John Tomaney have both stressed the importance of the local and the particular, just as Edmund Burke did in reaction to the highfalutin, and ultimately murderous, abstract utopian ideals of the French Revolution.

One of my favourite quotations is from a Whig historian, arguably the last of the great Whig historians. ‘The poetry of history’ wrote G.M Trevelyan in the introduction to his Social History of England, ‘lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are to-day, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we shall shortly be gone as ghosts at cock-crow.’ There are interwoven themes of place, of civility, of the sacred and of communion both with the past and with the present in Trevelyan’s words which go to the heart of the debate about how we restitch our neighbourhoods and reweave the precious quilt of our villages, towns and cities.

There is a paradox of place in Britain’s politics. Our representative democracy is completely place-based. Our councillors and MPs stand for and represent spatially demarcated wards and constituencies. We have no proportionally representative members elected regionally or nationally. In principle, place matters. And yet in practice it does not.

Good constituency MPs or ward councillors know their places. But our policy process  (for example our regulation of utility firms which leads to completely avoidable ‘street scars’ or, until 2021, the very aims of our planning system) has too often been place-blind, utilitarian in its approach to local character, assuming it is ok for our town centres and our public realm to be systemically de-graded or supporting interventions which encourage for those with ‘get up and go’ to ‘get up and go’ without worrying what happens to those who are left behind.

There is also a paradox of purpose. In everyday life and everyday media, we are unashamed in our desire to buy beautiful objects, become beautiful people or visit beautiful places. Blogs, videos and top selling magazines drip with advice on what clothes to buy, how to become better looking or the most attractive towns to visit on our holidays. And yet, as Dame Fiona Reynolds memorably put it in her important book, The Fight for Beauty;

‘Today to talk of beauty in policy circles risks embarrassment: it is felt both to be too vague a word, lacking precision and focus and, paradoxically given its appeal by contrast with official jargon, elitist. Yet in losing the word “beauty” we have lost something special from our ability to shape our present and our future.’

I agree. This is why we need to make the case for place if we are to rediscover our little platoons. Part at least of the path to civility and to communion runs through better, more humane, more walkable, more beautiful streets and squares over which neighbours feel they have some capacity to effect change and are not just the feckless dependents on an all-powerful highways authority, remote investor or heartless local planning authority. We no longer believe that the man (and it always was a man) in City Hall or Whitehall knows best. A recent YouGov poll found that 7 per cent of us have confidence in local planning departments to make our places better.

So why does place matter to our civic and neighbourly life, to the strength of our ‘little platoons?’  What is the case for place?

First, there is the simple or utilitarian argument for place. Put simply nice places which we find attractive and in which we feel at home are measurably and provably good for us and for neighbourly relations. It is also very easy to predict the types of places most people will like. There are predictable relationships between many aspects of the design of our streets and squares with public health, happiness and sociable neighbourhoods. To mention just a few: modest-scaled front gardens are associated with speaking to your neighbours more often; dark bushes in ambiguously accessible space between the public highway and your front door are often associated with greater daily fear of crime; more heavily trafficked streets are associated with fewer friends in the neighbourhood; street trees are associated with cleaner air and happier neighbours; buildings that most of us find more attractive (in itself very predictable) are associated with more support for new homes and with being inclined to help apparently lost members of the public. And so on and so on and so on. Robert Putnam has argued this in the American context in his book, Bowling Alone. And you can read more, far more, about this in some of my books such as Heart in the Right Street and Of Streets and Squares.

Better places literally weave us together, they don’t tear us apart. And place is not subjective. Give me a hundred people and I can tell you what between 70 and 80 them will typically like and where they are more likely to thrive (see here or here or here or chapter six here).

Secondly, place as metaphor. We care about places. Neighbourhood is a symbol and a witness for our communities and for our families. You can see this in polling. A 2021 poll revealed that physical degradation of streets and buildings was both a major detractor from ‘local pride’ and that people cared about this. Local parks, historic buildings and high streets were the physical attributes people most cared about. At Create Streets we see similar patterns in the results from our crowd-sourcing Create Communities platform which has now been across the UK and internationally. Anti-social behaviour and the decline of the high street were the main reasons cited for declining civic pride. Ed Dorrell from Public First, who commissioned the poll concluded:

‘This goes to show just how strongly voters in red-wall areas are desperate to be proud of the places in which they live and for them to be less shabby and less run down. Surely a clean, bustling high street free of graffiti – with the threat of petit crime minimised – and a refurbished civic building or two is not too much to ask.’

Similarly, when we called for examples of Street Scars via social media the online response was prolonged, supportive and vigorous with thousand of ‘likes’ and many hundreds of statements of support and suggested examples. When our public realm feels degraded and devalued, we feel degraded and devalued. So better places are not just good for us. Better places also tell us that we matter.

Thirdly, place as theatre. Well-designed places permit us to be individuals as well as members of a family and a community. Critically, they permit us to move readily between the three. Unless we are sociopaths or misanthropes, we all need other people and to be by ourselves. There is a time, and a need, for the personal, the familial and the communal. Public places are physically, tangibly where we come together as groups and neighbourhoods: churches, village halls, school gates. But we all need home. The family dinner or lunch. And we all need to by ourselves as well, to rest, to work, to reflect. Good places make it very easy to move seamlessly between all three.

This is why, across differences of time and place, as Christopher Alexander has observed in A Pattern Language, similar patterns keep repeating in places that thrive: the local high street or souk, the pub or coffee shop, the front door and reception room, the family room and bedroom. Take the example of the village green, the front garden and the back garden. All have trees or grass but all play different roles. The village green is communal. The front garden is neighbourly. The back garden is private.

This is a very conservative point, though not one that needs to be limited to conservatism. We live our lives though concrete experiences and realities not through political abstracts. The best homes and streets make it easy to be private (proper back gardens please) but they also make it easy and enjoyable to walk to school or the local shops. Most people need both.

So better places are not just good for us as individuals. They are good for us as communities.

What went wrong and why? The sense that somehow we have begun to build against nature is prevailing from left and right, from environmentalists like George Monbiot, from urbanists like Andras Duany and Richard Sennett, and from social philosophers like Rudolf Steiner and Alexander Mitscherlich. Why do so many of the places built over the last hundred years fail to satisfy us? Back in 2020 the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (which I co-chaired) named five causes, some entirely understandable, others rather less forgivable.

First is building technology. It has just become possible to build cheaply and simply at huge scale in a way that was simply not technically possible until seventy or eighty years ago. The world’s first iron-framed building, Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury, was designed and build purely commercially in the 1790s as a factory. But it is rather lovely with the detailed iron columns inside and the thousands of textured bricks on the outside. The modern equivalent is a huge metal box put up in an afternoon besides the M1. It won’t be here in 200 years’ time.

Our second challenge was increasing labour costs. Broadly speaking, after World War I the cost of labour increased and building techniques or technologies that minimised the need for manual labour became comparatively more attractive. Good for the workers but not so good for our places.

Flowing from this was the challenge of place-less building.  In attempts to get large numbers of houses built, all attempts to reflect local vernacular styles, distinctiveness or building materials disappeared in the face of ubiquity and ease of replication. That is very much with us today and is something most people hate. I have seen the same houses, with identical bricks and detailing from Cumbria to Somerset. I have listened to the workshops from Hackney to Hampshire of people complaining about development done to them from people not from here.

For eighty years we also became confused about cars in towns. We became profoundly muddled about how to manage the interaction of the car and the urban realm. As important writers such as Jan Gehl and Jeff Speck have brilliantly set out, it is just hard to make for liveable, popular and beautiful places if there are too many metal boxes hurtling past you at fifty miles per hour. Good places have cars as guests not the primary species.

Finally, and least forgivably, as a society we rejected the traditional settlement’s variety and pattern. In parallel with these largely technological changes were changes of mindset. Self-consciously and deliberately twentieth century planners and architects rejected the traditional town with its clear centre, composed facades, mix of uses and its walkable density. Nearly everyone deeply regrets this. For example, the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission encountered much consternation at the injuries done to older settlements though much of the twentieth century by buildings’ scale, nature and positioning. Matlock Civic Association wrote in their evidence;

‘The impression is gained that before the 1970s the existing character of Matlock, and the need to perpetuate traditional stone buildings, was often overlooked. Matlock is not alone. Between 1950s and 1980s development throughout the United Kingdom brought a rash of buildings which are out of scale with their surroundings, obtrusive flat roof buildings, discordant building materials and poor window design.

But there is good news. Evolving technology that undermined our economic ability to customise deign to local traditions is now flowing the other way. 3d printing and computer-led design means that it is becoming much more cost efficient to adapt patterns and production on a case-by-case basis. Good.

Traffic-modernism’s self-interested celebration of the motor car (Le Corbusier’s plans to bulldoze Paris were sponsored by a car manufacturer) and rejection of the local is also now roundly intellectually and politically condemned. This has not yet flown through sufficiently to the syllabuses of most architectural schools but it will. Most young architects remain happy to copy and adapt design from about 1920 onwards but condemn adapting anything built before about 1920 as ‘pastiche’, the lowest plain of Hades in architectural parlance. (‘Pastiche’ is a mysteriously elastic concept. It is applied to any traditional building created since about 1920 though never to a traditional building of, say, 1890, or to any of the thousands of derivative modernist buildings created in the last 50 years.) This is self-evidently an intellectually untenable position but the superior durability of traditionally designed buildings is making the case against traditional development patterns harder and harder for a very environmentally focused profession to maintain.

We need to rediscover the sacred in way we create new places and our stewarding old ones. From Rome’s Baths of Caracalla to Palladio’s Basilica Palladiana in Vincenza, we have historically created our buildings and streets to be as good as we can afford — not as cheap as we can bear. That is why the 500-year-old Fuggerei social housing in Augsburg, Bavaria is better than nearly any social housing built in the last century. That is why until 70 years ago we created places which, today, we visit for the sheer pleasure of being there. (Indeed, the Fuggerei is partly funded today by the income from paying tourists.) Perhaps it is no surprise that one of the world’s most beautiful modern cities, Singapore, has, uniquely among former colonial cities, raised statues to their colonial founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. They are in communion with the past, the better to look to the future.

The places we create and above all, how we steward them and pass them on to our children and children’s children therefore becomes vitally important not just to our civic bonds but to our ‘little platoons’ across time as well as space. As Roger Scruton recalled 40 years ago:

‘The London Street in which I live contains houses of every shape and size, range behind facades that stand politely beside one another. The porticoes are identical, as are the window frames – each being  cobbled together from standard parts. No house obtrudes into the path of the pedestrian, but each meets the pavement with obvious signs of welcome. The windows, crowned by moulded architraves,  have that kind of half smiling look which permits you to glance into them; the flight of steps softens the approach to the door, and provides a useful area of the neutral ground between the public and the private.’

Nicholas Boys Smith is the founding chair of Create Streets