Can housing be a catalyst for great places? A round-up of our London debate

On Wednesday 12 March 2014, The Glass-House asked ‘Can housing be a catalyst for great places?’. The answer we got was yes! Or maybe? Or perhaps not entirely.

Chief Executive of Thrive Homes, Elspeth Mackenzie reminded us of the all so often narrow unambitious aspirations for regeneration and homes – as if nice kitchens and bathrooms could be the solution to the ills of modern living. It appears beauty within and without are necessary, but not sufficient, in making a place and in making a life.

So why haven’t our grander schemes to improve homes and lives worked? Why were they rejected by the people they were created for? Elspeth’s answer: successful places are not ones that have been created to solve a particular problem at a given time – successful places have fluidity, flexibility, they respond to change and needs as these evolve. Success comes from a virtuous circle of self and common interest, where housing is an anchor that keeps people in a place, but local amenities sustain great places that people choose to live in.

But Elspeth acknowledged that we don’t always want change – many communities fight to keep things just the way they are. What’s the answer to these battles? Long time Kilburn resident Angela Moore offered an answer. Angela’s experience of the Granville New Homes development and her involvement in its resident steering group makes her an unequivocal advocate for creating a place with people. “If the foundation upon which a place is built is great, then the place will be great,” and what better foundation than a strong local community invested in the place?

Angela was swift to point out that the quality of housing will affect quality of place. But that also sometimes housing takes over – that everything begins to feel tight and claustrophobic, that there’s no space for all the other things we need to have for great places. Lecturer and Architect Fran Balaam took up this baton by focusing on the role of “the spaces in between” and public realm.

Referring to her work on a masterplan for a new Palestinian settlement in Jerusalem, Fran reminded us of the importance of history and what has come before: “We don’t value what is already there. Sites [in between] become an island that residents have no reason to access.” Referring to Eric Lyons’ work and Span homes, Fran challenged us to think about how community management could enliven green spaces and help us negotiate the relationship between public and private spaces.

Our fourth and final speaker, Southwark Councillor Fiona Colley reflected on the changes Southwark has seen, from industrial powerhouse to the home of trendy gated developments. Fiona also told the story of the need for amenity and the impact of public facilities on place – citing the building of the new Rotherhithe Library as an example of creating value for a community. “Of course housing can make great places, but it doesn’t always and it doesn’t happen by accident. And what of the role of developers? “Not all developers are the same”, Fiona told us, while challenging their sometimes short term view of places, “It’s much better to work with developers interested in the long term view”.

Our audience explored the relationships and trust (and lack of) that can mean we don’t create places with people or take risks that could mitigate uncertainty and secure a well-managed future for our homes and places. “Are we frightened of letting people in?” came a question from the floor. Yes! But can we make great places if we don’t let them in?

One audience member remarked that “time is money” and that we are inevitably led by economic cycles. Angela Moore came straight back with an answer: people involved in the process are “getting something other than just a home, people are developed as individuals” and that whilst you cannot involve everyone you can develop a core that is committed to the place and process.

When we want and need housing so badly, are we in danger of neglecting the other very necessary components of place?

Will we wait until we’re finally sitting in our flats, maisonettes, semis and cottages before we ask where the other parts of the puzzle are: something to do, people to do it with and the resilience and vitality to sustain us when change comes?

This was the final Debate in our 2013/14 Series. Place Potential explored how a collaborative approach can unlock the potential of people and places through four themes, in four cities: health and wellbeing in Edinburgh, young people in Newcastle, creative re-use in Bristol and housing in London.

This final debate was sponsored by Grosvenor Britain and Ireland, and our local partner was Neighbourhoods Green.