New Urbanism: Britain taps into USA's housing design code
Axis - 18 January 2005
Deputy prime minister John Prescott has been persuaded that design coding could help speed up housing development in urban areas. But will a US approach work in the UK? asks Colin Marrs.
It is a heart-rending tale. A decent man discovers his life has been controlled by a dark and powerful organisation which stage-manages events to create a world of illusions. John Prescott might have felt some sympathy with the hero of Hollywood blockbuster The Truman Show when he visited the film's US set last year.
The deputy prime minister was in the real-life town of Seaside, Florida, in an attempt to discover the secret of its architectural success. Within a month of his return to the UK, he announced to an audience of planning professionals that planning rules known as 'design codes' would be piloted.
The advent of coding, pioneered in Seaside, signals a triumph for a US school of architectural thought known as New Urbanism. Ironically, this movement advocates a return to pre-20th century forms of urban design in an attempt to prevent any more modernist urban design disasters.
Over the next 20 years in south-east England, the government wants to see the building of an additional 200,000 homes on top of those already planned. The task is immense, and has led to fears that the targets mean we stand on the verge of repeating the sprawling, dysfunctional housing developments of the 1960s. But why, as the UK stands on the edge of building thousands of homes in new communities, are we looking to the USA for design tips?
Seaside was founded in 1982 using a set of design codes that operate as strict planning rules. These strictures are intended to secure well-designed communities on a large scale. In this model, local authorities adopt principles outlining buildings' density, their relationship to each other and to public transport. Prescott believes the system has a lot to offer the UK: 'I'm talking about how to produce an attractive, well-planned environment quickly and efficiently.'
Crucially, Prescott is persuaded that coding could be the key to speeding up the planning process. Under the coding concept, developers' schemes could be fast-tracked through the planning process if they meet a set list of requirements. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) is currently piloting a £500,000 coding research programme in seven new UK communities ranging from 500 to 4,000 new homes.
An interim report into progress, will be released to coincide with the Sustainable Communities Summit in Manchester. The pilot areas are testing how masterplans can be turned into design codes the level of further preparation needed before development starts. 'If you are importing an idea like this it is important to test it. We need to know how much groundwork is necessary to implement these things,' says Joanna Averley, CABE's director of enabling.
The basic idea behind coding was developed in the US by the Congress for New Urbanism. This architectural movement grew up in the 1980s as a reaction against car-based urban sprawl. Most US developments since the 1950s have been low density, encouraging residents to drive their cars and discouraging social interaction. 'In America, they hadn't had any urbanism worth talking about. Since they discovered the motor car they haven't looked back,' observes John Thompson, chairman of the Royal Institute of British Architects' urbanism and planning group,
New Urbanist practitioners in the USA and their followers in the UK reject this development model. They believe brownfield sites should be developed before greenfield ones. They want mixed-use activities and public transport to be within walking distance of all housing, allowing independence to those who do not drive, especially the young and elderly. Development should be at higher density the closer it gets to transport links, they argue.
Another key strand is 'permeability', allowing greater freedom of movement.
Much US 'sprawl development' relies on enclosed housing developments served by distributor roads. The new approach harks back to traditional urbanism, in which cars and people mingle and pedestrians have great freedom to roam. 'We are against culs-de-sac,' Thompson insists. 'We want permeable places where there are always people, and eyes, on the street.'
Advocates of New Urbanism are quick to maintain that their philosophy is not a recipe for identikit development. Although some strands of the movement say that architectural styles should be defined in codes, most argue that it is only the relationship of buildings to each other that should be dictated. These relationships should vary according to the location, they agree. Layouts in rural Lincolnshire will differ radically from those in central London.
Although the UK has never suffered the same amount of sprawl development as the US, relaxed planning policy in the 1980s led to a rash of low-density, cul-de-sac development. The laissez-faire approach of Thatcherite planning policy allowed retail development to become separated from town centres. The resulting devastation of town centres provided fertile ground for New Urbanist thinking in this country.
Architects, planners and government began to react against this process by the early 1990s. But although the reaction shared many of New Urbanism's aims, many question the extent to which this is because of the influence of the US movement. Peter Hall, professor of planning at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning at University College London, says: 'British design has always been closer to New Urbanism. In a lot of ways it never went away as it did in the States.'
Averley agrees, arguing that New Urbanism is largely based on European best practice. She points out that since the early 1990s the UK has been slowly building a raft of legislation based on the ideas of good urbanism.
Thompson goes further. 'The greatest achievement of this New Labour government is that we have already got most favourable central government legislation in place,' he argues.
The design section of the 1999 Urban Task Force report, Towards an Urban Renaissance was certainly influenced by US New Urbanist ideas, although it also looked to Europe for much of its inspiration. The report has gone on to shape much of the current government's urban policy. 'We have done a pretty good job in the past five to ten years of defining what UK urbanism is about. Now the challenge is to apply it,' says Averley.
However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the ideas of New Urbanism.
Bedfordshire Police Force architectural liaison officer Peter Knowles believes that New Urbanist layouts, far from creating safer communities, actively encourage crime. He says that greater permeability allows more strangers into an area, providing opportunities for burglars to operate without raising suspicion. 'When you ask people who live there what they think, they are often not very positive,' he reports.
He believes that the architects behind New Urbanism are designing places based on a romanticised notion of what a community should be. He accuses them of deliberately ignoring the evidence of how they turn out. He also puts the boot into a number of schemes which have had awards lavished on them by the design community. 'If you look at the redevelopment of Hulme in Manchester, it has been a complete disaster from a crime point of view,' he claims.
Knowles is not alone. Ted Kitchen, professor of planning and urban regeneration at Sheffield Hallam University, says: 'Intellectually, New Urbanism is a very attractive idea, but the research does suggest a relationship between the permeability of an area and the nature and intensity of crime.' He says that a wholesale application of New Urbanism could lead to a repetition of the mistakes of the 1960s.
Kitchen praises many other aspects of New Urbanist thinking. But he is adamant that the public must be involved in a debate about how their communities look. He warns of the dangers of allowing architects and planners to impose their values on places where people live and calls for greater public debate. 'It may be that people prefer to live in New Urbanist communities, despite the risk of greater crime. But we must ask them first,' he concludes.
A TIMELINE OF BRITISH URBANISM
Beginning in the early 1990s and gathering pace under the current government, the UK has introduced a raft of legislation encouraging the revival of urban communities:
- 1993 - Manchester Millennium Ltd, a council and private sector task force, set up to oversee the £1 billion rebuilding programme after an IRA bomb rips the heart out of the city centre. The company later provides the inspiration for new urban regeneration companies.
- 1996 - John Major's government publishes PPG6 - planning guidance on retail development.
The guidance introduced the 'sequential test', which requires councils to direct new shopping developments toward city centres, rather than out-of-town shopping centres.
- 1999 - Government-appointed Urban Task Force publishes Towards an Urban Renaissance, a comprehensive manual on how to revive urban areas. The document sets the agenda for much of New Labour's subsequent planning, regeneration and housing legislation.
- 2000 - PPG3 applies the sequential test to housing development, requiring councils to give preferential treatment to brownfield development for residential schemes. Sets minimum density requirements for new housing schemes.
- 2001 - Government releases the good practice guide to PPG13, its planning guidance on transport. The document makes it clear that local authorities should integrate their transport programmes and land use policies, in an attempt to reduce reliance on the motor car.
- 2004 - Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act is finally given royal assent. After a concerted campaign, the word 'design' is incorporated into the new law. In a separate move, deputy prime minister John Prescott announces the piloting of New Urbanist design coding in seven communities.