Wednesday 26 February 2014

Could the densification of London’s outer suburbs come to the aid of the capital’s ever more concerning housing need?

A special Think Tank on the so-called Supurbia, co-hosted at the NLA by HTA Design LLP under Chatham House rules, sought to debate the issue to see what could, or should, be done.

A study produced by HTA Design into this area suggests the suburbs present both an opportunity – essentially the housing shortfall – and a problem – their relative low densities at around 2,500 people per square kilometre and low property values. How was it that a terraced property in Fulham would fetch some four times as much as equivalent accommodation in Waltham Forest, with the latter failing to lure young buyers despite the difference? But beyond value, perhaps the suburbs have an ‘enormous brand problem’ too.

Meetings and more research conducted with the outer London boroughs has essentially revealed that yes, they’re up for greater densification, but not everywhere. The trade-offs they are prepared to make lie principally in densifying the town centres, rather than in areas we might label ‘Acacia Avenue’. They are also up for opportunity areas and intensification where the built form can in a sense start from a clean piece of paper.

Discussion of the housing shortfall often moves towards a debate about the potential relaxation of the Green Belt, and it did so here, with some areas finding that some Green Belt land was no longer performing its original purpose, leading to thoughts of de-designation. This is when suburbia becomes ‘disturbia’, however, with the issue of densification becoming highly controversial and ‘extremely sensitive’ in some suburbs, particularly against de-designation of recreational uses. ‘Unsurprisingly, householders neighbouring these areas will use every blog and tweet and social media to get their message across’, said one Think Tank participant. ‘If you’re living in low-density neighbourhoods with a high quality of life, good schools, good public transport and healthcare and amenities, you don’t readily seek or accept change…and there will inevitably have to be a bit of a struggle’. Densifying should take place in the town centres, since there are certainly degraded, quasi-industrial elements of the Green Belt which could be suitable for amenity and new types of development. But one of the key challenges is in getting people to understand that residential development is important, and that both modern architecture and densification can be forces for good. ‘People will support densification more if they think there is a reasonable mix’, said another contributor, rather than just housing for absent landlords or buy-to-let. In some areas, though, the subject of the Green Belt isn’t even vaguely on the political agenda, but it is a truism that we have failed to create a new vernacular for dense, high quality housing in the suburbs. A conundrum, however, is that the more we try to get out of developments in terms of extra facilities, the more dense they have to get and thus the less acceptable they become to people.

Other issues discussed during the Think Tank included how the UK has restrictive standards as they apply to building codes including ‘archaic’ daylighting standards; the need to get back to public investment in infrastructure to relieve the up-front cost burden to developers; the ageing population’s potential to impact on schemes; encouraging occupiers of ‘Acacia Avenue’ to welcome and participate in ‘small, incremental change’; the potential for exercising restraint over cars and car parking spaces in the suburbs as a pre-requisite to intensification and the ‘vital’ need to densify town centres with residential, including above retail, to safeguard their economic prospects – keeping local money in local places. The research in this area should also be seen alongside that being done in the name of the Wolfson Prize, which is inviting new ideas in the supply of housing and new towns.

There was also time for a note of caution on this subject, however, with one contributor warning that, rather than look to design to solve issues, the fundamentals of deliverability – land and money – must be the first item on the agenda. The main thrust must be towards creating clear business models to enable schemes to stack up, rather than look to the physical solution alone. It must also be remembered that people do actually like the suburbs for their community feel, the gardens, and the fact it is ‘not Hackney’ or transient. There is a simple reason for the housing shortage, another participant added – we didn’t build enough. The people who want to build on Green Belt are the same as those who want to build on flood plains – it simply needs imagination to better utilise spaces in the centre which are still available. The only way forward, he added, is for the public sector to take on the role it did since the LCC – to provide for what the private sector cannot because it is a business.

Ultimately, there is no one silver bullet that can solve London’s housing problems, however, and it perhaps needs the creation of a garden city outside of the M25. But the intensification of the suburbs is an interesting and necessary proposition, with new technologies potentially transforming how cars are used and an ageing population impacting on layouts and, potentially, completely transforming how we design the suburbs. Technology will affect mobility and free up land, while homes designed to allow for more home-working could also be a boon to the suburbs, which need a whole range of typologies. The housebuilders need to be persuaded to buy into this, with the silos taken out of this traditional industry.

A successful city can only be successful if its suburbs are too, but the reality is that if you want to live in London you will not move to, say, Ebbsfleet, suggested another contributor. If we are to meet the numbers the Opportunity Areas only get us three-quarters of the way there – perhaps one answer lies in the fact that a lot of stock is in the hands of private landlords.

But if we were to build out London to Kensington and Chelsea densities, we would get to a population of 21 million. ‘So let’s not pretend we can’t do it within the boundaries of this city’ said another Think Tank contributor, ‘if we design it properly, and we have the political will to do it.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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