Place Potential Think Piece Series: Can housing be a catalyst for great places? #1

As well as enduring the slowest economic recovery in more than 100 years, Britain is suffering from a severe housing crisis.  Recent analysis suggests that we are heading for a property shortage of more than a million homes by 2022 unless the current rate of house building is dramatically increased.

While policymakers and property developers can offer a number of suggestions as to how to solve this crisis, the question arises as to whether housing alone will generate a sense of ‘great place.’

Taking a brownfield site and building 1000 homes does contribute to reducing the housing deficit – but is this all that needs to considered? Is this not just a short sighted view to solve one problem, which will in time only create further problems for a future generation?

House design alone is not the key to better homes.  The housing shortage generates an opportunity in which to explore place-making – the housing that is built today will not only help to shape our environment in the immediate future, it will also be a legacy determining the environmental quality of many areas throughout the 21st century.

The current regulatory climate, lack of experience and short term financial expectations put particular demands on plc’s in the development industry. This means that the solutions that are being proposed to mitigate the housing shortage are done so within an infrastructure that is at capacity in terms of the road networks.  Too much housing development is being squeezed into infrastructure that does not have the ability to accommodate it, pressed into planning policies that are not looking at the bigger picture.

A great place is not necessarily a ‘beautiful’ place –creating great places takes more than aesthetics.  As Jan Gehl says, a place should not be designed in a way which creates ‘pretty aerial photographs;’ it is the functionality happening at street level which is important.  The art of urban design/place-making has become better understood over recent years.  We now appreciate how good design can make a difference in shaping our built environment and we know how the sustainability of development and our quality of life can be enhanced by more careful thought about the places we are creating.

Places – whether created in rural surroundings or an urban setting need to respect their context and make the most of existing site characteristics.  A well designed ‘place’ respects natural habitat and heritage, encourages walking and cycling, creates open distinctive spaces, is accessible, safe and well connected, serves the needs of residents of all ages, and the needs of visitors and service providers.

Creating communities is key to creating a great place – housing supply needs to be looked at in the context of a wider vision that focuses less on serving the need that every individual has for housing and focuses more on creating places that people want to live in.  A community is created not by the functional benefits of a place but by the emotional benefits of that place. This is often ignored, even though it is these factors that make people want to live somewhere: feeling safe, secure and relaxed generates a sense of pride and ownership, a feeling that an individual is included, special and happy so that they care for and love the location.

Building housing is one thing; a need will be served.  Creating place is something different, but when looked at together the two can create something special.  It is the relationship between houses, the public realm and infrastructure that surrounds them, the connectivity and inclusivity of the area, the sense of community that can be created and developed, that makes the difference.  And this will in turn be reflected financially; a developer that ignores the importance of ‘place’ for short term gain will not benefit from the premium that can be achieved by turning houses into homes and creating great places.

Grosvenor Britain & Ireland aims to create value through our skills in placemaking and design, repositioning locations in ways that change customer perceptions and deliver results for our stakeholders. The core portfolio comprises 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia in London, which first came into the Grosvenor family in 1677. Grosvenor Britain & Ireland also undertakes development across London, and in selected city centres around the UK.

‘Can housing be a catalyst for great places?’ – The Glass-House London Debate 2014 on Wednesday 12 March, 6-8pm, is kindly sponsored by Grosvenor.