I recently had an opportunity to reflect on London suburbia which has given me pause for thought in some of the work we are developing in our office at the moment. Asked to do a ‘talking head’ slot on a Grand Design surburban special, I resorted to extensive research (so as to appear fantastically knowledgable) and happened upon the most amazing book by Robert Stern called ‘Paradise Planned’. This has to be the most thorough survey of the suburban housing model to date. It charts the changes from the reaction against industrialisation by Howard / Parker and Unwin, right through to modern day New Urbanism in the USA. What particularly struck me was the constant theme of reconnecting with nature, either as a utopian dream from Howard, or an overt marketing strategy to help with house sales in our modern times.
So what is wrong with this? Well put simply as suburbia becomes less dense, with more landscape between buildings, the car becomes more prevalent. The final conclusion is the crazy conceptual Frank Lloyd Wright ‘Broadacre’ which relies on every occupant having their own helicopter! The irony is that, as these schemes are more successful in terms of bringing people closer to their natural environment, they actually become less sustainable.
So what is the answer? Well in short, densification. The only answer is to try to fit more homes closer together, whilst keeping the spirit and ethos of a better connection to the landscape intact. The great news for architects is that this macro problem, in terms of our cities’ future, actually boils down to a local design problem – how do we keep a connection to nature with a denser network of homes?
If we do not address the densification problem then we simply cannot expect to be able to protect the Greenbelt areas around our cities. There are however two problems with progressing this issue. Firstly the current PTAL (public transport accessibility level) ratings for many potential ‘densification’ sites are not very good. This would imply that a more concentrated development is not appropriate. The truth is that without new denser schemes being completed, public transport will not improve sufficiently to affect the PTAL rating. The second and more critical problem is resistance to increased densification from the current suburban residents.
We recently received planning for an eight unit residential development in a classic suburban area. Whilst we spent a long time refining the design to ensure that our massing and landscaping were sensitive to the local environment, the reaction from a large number of neighbours was aggressively negative. Most people who have moved to the suburbs are looking for more space, specifically more personal green space, and anything that may affect this way of life they view as a threat. Until a number of ‘densification’ schemes have been successfully implemented it will be a struggle to allay their concerns. It is vital that the first schemes of this nature are of excellent design quality, to demonstrate what can be achieved.
So the densification of our suburbs represents a fantastic design opportunity for architects, a chance to address one of the most pressing problems in our built environment with excellent architectural and landscape design. As a profession we should grasp this opportunity to show how clever design can make the most of our existing cities, without starting to sprawl across the open countryside.
Jerry Tate, Partner