The speakers at the second Landscape Futures lecture, held in Birmingham, believe that the downturn may be good for housing design.

Speakers at the Landscape Futures debate
Place-making not house design is the key to better homes

Is it time to be optimistic about the quality of housing development? Frazer Osment, a director of LDA Design who presented the Landscape Futures lecture in Birmingham on Tuesday 11 February, thinks it might be. ‘I am optimistic because people are investing in infrastructure,’ he said. ‘But I am pessimistic because it is not as good as it could be.’

Osment was addressing the question ‘How can we build beautiful places?’ and argued that the beauty he was seeking was far more than simply aesthetic. He drew on the experience of his own childhood, growing up on a poor and scruffy farm in north Devon. Aesthetically, he said, it was not lovely, but it offered abundant opportunities for play and exploration. In fact, he said, the idea of aesthetic beauty was one that he did not encounter until university.

The exemplar is not the answer

Only a small proportion of housing schemes can ever be visually exemplary, Osment said. Instead, he argued for environments that have a beauty that lies in ‘more than what they look like’, in their quality as places to live. Too many contemporary developments have lost this, he said, because ‘they are squeezed into infrastructure that doesn’t have room to accommodate them, and squeezed into a planning policy that doesn’t have a feeling about the big processes.’

Development too often has to happen within an infrastructure that is at capacity in terms of  the road networks and of communities’ desire for more housing. But for the first time in ages, Osment said, as a result of the economic downturn, there is a growing desire to think about infrastructure and to put some money into it. Developers are realising, he explained, that investing in infrastructure is a way to make places better and hence to make houses more attractive. The problem is, Osment believes, that the regulatory climate and a lack of experience mean that often these solutions are not as good as they could be. ‘We need people who are willing to look at a vision and to say, I am going to make it happen,’ he said.

Rediscover your zeal

Step forward the landscape architect. Some time in the 1980s, Osment argued, when landscape architects looked at hideous developments and thought only of ways of mitigating them, they lost the ‘creative zeal’ that their predecessors had enjoyed. ‘We have to rediscover that zeal,’ he said, ‘to plan infrastructure and communities on a large scale. In a few places, we will see new types of place emerge as models. It makes sense in terms of adding value to people’s lives.’

David Birkbeck, who runs Design for Homes, was one of two respondents to Osment. He stressed the importance of infrastructure, and the fact that there is a growing realisation that by improving the layout and landscape of places they can be made to appeal more to potential occupants. Housing developers will not put extra money into the houses themselves but they have realised that by spending a relatively small amount on the infrastructure, they can ‘change the impact of the development’.

No service charges

Birkbeck believes that it is essential that this improved infrastructure is not paid for by service charges, citing a development in York where, with quality housing and high-class infrastructure, all buyers were put off because of a £400 annual service charge. Instead, he says, the service cost should be capitalised at the start of the project, and rolled into the land value. Enlightened local authorities will sell the land for slightly less if they can be reassured that high-quality infrastructure will be created and maintained.

He cited examples such as Letchworth Garden Village, which still works well because of the trust that was created. Places for People has tried to emulate this approach by investing in large-scale developments where it can really make a difference, explained Mary Parsons, the organisation’s group business development director and the other respondent.

Feelings as well as facts

‘We want to create places that people want to live in,’ she said. She believes that there is a difference between the factual benefits and the emotional benefits of a place, and that often the latter are ignored. Yet, she said, it is these factors that make people want to live somewhere – the feeling that they are safe, that they are relaxed and secure; that they can be proud of where they live; that they feel included with a sense of belonging, and that they are happy.

Housing itself is unlikely to change. It is the masterplan, the relationship between the houses, the views on offer and the type and position of outdoor space that will make the difference. And it translates financially, Parsons said. Where more money has been spent on these factors, homes achieve a premium. But, she explained, this can only happen with developers who are prepared to take a longer-term view, rather than being immediately answerable to shareholders.

Bright future?

There was much cause for optimism in these talks, although the difficulties were not played down. All three speakers agreed that it was not the design of the individual homes that could differentiate a place but the design of the place itself – the masterplan – and the knowledge and detailed skills to carry that through.

To learn more abiout forthcoming Landscape Futures events, click here.

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