As this is our last blog of 2020, a year that has brought significant challenges for all of us, we thought we would take a moment to reflect on where we’re going and the changes we would like to see going forward.  Undoubtedly, there is a period of significant change coming based on our individual experiences of lockdown, the restrictions imposed on our lives, and the Government’s proposed changes to the planning system, however permanent and radical these may actually transpire to be. 

For starters, development has to become more sustainable. We can’t continue the way we have in terms of the scale and type of development, the impact on resources and the unsustainability of our daily lives. More organisations and research groups, including Sustrans and The Place Alliance, are essentially recommending a return to the past. The creation of sustainable neighbourhoods where we can live, work and play. Where we can drop our kids off at school, walk to work and go to the shops, gym or pool during our lunch break, then a walk back to get the kids and home. These have surely got to represent a kinder lifestyle – to the environment, our communities and ourselves?

Ok this may seem a little bit ‘pie in the sky’ stuff, but we need to create a society that allows neighbourhoods to work for us on many levels. Where we can be pretty much self sufficient in a smaller area, where we don’t need to move large groups of people into and out of the city centre. Where the loss of vital community facilities are not tolerated, which can prove the catalyst to the devastation we see in so many of our suburban areas.   

The current political focus is on the regeneration of our high streets and rightly so. But the outer areas of our cities, the parts where most people live, are also crying out for regeneration and revitalisation. Think of all the semi-dead suburban shopping centres in your city or town (Filwood Broadway, Stockwood, Patchway to name but a few here in Bristol) that need a range of facilities to make them viable and attractive places to visit and use again, along with better connectivity. So let’s create employment opportunities, let’s revitalise local shopping centres (not just high streets), strive to locate nurseries and schools near to where people live and work, and prioritise libraries, community centres, recreational facilities and parks. 

Landlords also need to rethink their approach to space. Take an agile approach to cheaper rents with more flexible lease arrangements for shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Office space for the smaller industrial and creative start-ups.  Places that don’t cost the earth but enable small businesses to thrive. 

The fixation of ‘housing trumps all uses’ is leading to the loss of too many inner area and suburban facilities that we all need – the places that provide employment, where we get our cars fixed, the glaziers where you can pick up supplies to fix a window, the ironmongers and DIY shops.  Not to mention the conversion of small local shops into residential uses under permitted development rights. 

What do we mean by sustainable? At its most basic level it’s where we can live, work, learn, socialise and play in a local area. Not necessarily single use residential estates which can be soul destroying. The Place Alliance’s Home Comforts first post-lockdown report (October 2020) concluded “When designing neighbourhoods, the aspiration should be for everyone to live within a five-minute walk of ‘significant’ green space or a park and ‘never be more than 10 minutes’ from basic facilities.” There is nothing new about this – our forebears were developing our Victorian and Edwardan cities and suburbs on this rationale. Jane Jacobs was advocating this back in 1960s New York. It’s just common sense based on how we used to live. 

As if we didn’t already know, lockdowns have reinforced the fundamental value and need for our recreational facilities, our swimming pools, gyms, sports pitches, local parks. These are vital to our health and wellbeing. We’re not just speaking from personal experience but Swim England has confirmed that a single swimming pool of circa 25m generates £7.2m social value in community savings – that’s improved health savings, increased educational attainment, reduced crime and improved life satisfaction. It saves the NHS and social care system more than £1.2m annually. So we need to meet this challenge and make sure our existing and new neighbourhoods are as good as they can be, to ensure that we as communities can really thrive. 

Working from home. Yes some of us love it (we fall into this camp) and some of us hate it and are desperate to be reunited with our colleagues. The office will not disappear; it will evolve. But we’ve been forced to hunker down and use our homes as both our personal and professional space. We’ve had to share it with partners, parents, kids, dogs, cats, laptops and printers. What has this revealed about us? The Place Alliance Home Comforts report confirms that people are least comfortable living in newly built apartments in mid to high rise blocks. They want to live in houses with space, light and gardens. But in the absence of ‘houses’ for all, we need to have flexible space that we can better use. We need to radically rethink the design of space as we move forward. Wave goodbye to high rise, small, pokey, airless studios and flats. Provide people with space and comfort. Space to create dedicated work, fitness and storage space within homes. Stride Treglown’s Talking Spaces edition no. 6 looks at these issues from a variety of perspectives and is well worth a read. 

Going forward, we’ll be more reliant on homes that are flexible, functional and beautiful. The Government’s recent requirement for office to residential conversions to comply with national space standards is a step forward. But we can do better. The reality is that people don’t want to live in these types of homes, so why are we continuing to develop higher rise schemes that focus on such limited accommodation with no private space and no gardens? The densest parts of our cities and towns are in reality the Georgian and Victorian areas – the vast majority of which are characterised by houses with decent sized rooms, light and gardens. These developed in conjunction with open spaces, parks, recreational facilities and the infrastructure and services we need. So let’s revisit these and understand why this type of housing worked. 

There is a need to redefine what we see as ‘value’ from a project. It can’t just be economic. We’re not saying developers shouldn’t make a profit, but financial returns at all costs surely cannot be the measure of true value. Developing a site that generates quality in terms of its appearance, its function and how it positively contributes to its community should be as important as its financial returns. Perhaps developers should think of themselves as designers and place makers not just money makers. 

So as a reflection of 2020 and looking towards 2021, let’s think more about what we want to create and how we really want to live. Let’s celebrate the mavericks, the entrepreneurs, the developers, architects, designers and planners that can see a changing world focused on sustainability and quality and are willing to embrace it.