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Place Potential Think Piece Series: Can housing be a catalyst for great places? #3

Posted on 10 March 2014

Written by:

Guest Author

By Emily Read

‘We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.’
Jane Jacobs

As we know, London faces the major challenge of housing a rapidly expanding population whilst ensuring a legacy successful new neighbourhoods for Londoners to be proud of. With the weight of the economic crisis beginning to lift, it is encouraging to see the emergence of ambitious residential led proposals (Legacy Communities Scheme, Nine Elms, Barking Riverside) however the focus now shifts to how these big plans are manifest. Do they have the right ingredients to become tomorrow’s ‘great places’?

Backdrop and Accent
In many of the great places in our city, housing takes a supporting role, providing a framework for daily life. When designing and planning residential areas, we do not need buildings that shout for our attention, but instead those that fulfil their function with simplicity and most importantly longevity. London’s Georgian squares for example, use simple, repetitive yet well proportioned facades which serve as a backdrop to the theatre of the street. It is within these spaces that people congregate, interact and the urban fabric takes on meaning for its inhabitants.

Our experience of place is informed by both its physical qualities and the degree to which we can engage with and shape our environment. Each place is different and requires a bespoke response to make it special. The big plans of the ’60’s failed at times to realise this, attempting to impose a way of life rather than allowing it grow and develop. Sheffield’s Park Hill flats were based on this notion, their ‘streets in the sky’ taking key elements of life on a traditional terraced street and replicating them in high rise blocks, to varying degrees of success.

An example of where this does work successfully is in the co-housing projects so popular in Europe, where people commission and build a living environment based on a shared notion of community and a bespoke set of requirements.

As with a new landscape that will grow and mature, an urban environment must be allowed to do the same in order to establish its roots and grow strong and healthy.

A city is not a static element, and an architect’s drawing only represents a moment in time. We are at times encouraged to over-design an environment, prescribing how we will occupy the built form to how we will behave in the external areas, in an attempt to de-risk potential threats. This sterile approach to urbanism rejects the core elements that make a city – the opportunities it creates, the unexpected elements, the street life it supports which brings the physical environment to life. Some of our most innovative and engaging areas are those which have been colonised and shaped to suit the needs of their residents. The former industrial quarters of Hackney Wick for example, where Victorian industrial buildings have been repurposed as flexible,  communal living and working space.

So, can housing be a catalyst for great places?
With the scale of residential development proposed for London, housing will undoubtedly be the driving force behind the creation of our city’s new places. The challenge will be delivering new development that has the inbuilt flexibility to adapt, and react and evolve along with the patterns of use and behaviour of its community….now that would be the makings of a truly great place.


Emily Read is an urban designer and the Deputy Team Leader of Placemaking at the London Borough of Croydon. All views expressed in this piece are her own.

Can housing be a catalyst for great places? The London Debate takes place on Wednesday 12 March from 6-8pm.