Why ‘development’ is a dirty word (and seven ways to change it)

Read any opinion poll or listen to any public consultation and you will be left in no doubt that we live in a country that desperately needs more homes.

Read or listen to the local reaction to any proposed new housing development and you will be left in no doubt that many people in the local area won’t want them nearby.

Our urban story

This is a relatable paradox.  We all want what’s best for society, but it’s a lot easier for years of construction work to take place somewhere we are not.

This isn’t a new realisation.  However, when linked to the lack of trust in developers (we will return to this), it creates a cloak of negativity around a positive story.  Urbanism should be good news.  It is synonymous with the advancement of civilisations, the development of communities and the evolution of ideas.

Modern societies are faced with existential crises, from climate change and mass migration to the huge loss of biodiversity.  It’s a time when we want to use land more sustainably while more and more of us live alone. This combination means we need more houses more than ever before, but only in ways that solve underlying problems.

The ‘right’ way to build

Rows of houses alone are not the answer, however sustainable their materials.  They only work when they bring people together.  Successful developments should not be measured on the numbers they house but on the communities they create.

Communities, by definition, develop around communal interests and places.  Cafes and pubs, walkways and playgrounds, allotments and open spaces, sports clubs and schools, shops and local businesses.  ‘Infrastructure’ isn’t an inspiring word, but it’s crucial to that end.  If a ‘development’ is driven by the building of houses, it will fail.  Only when the infrastructure comes first, and the place is designed around a future community, will it be welcomed by those who live nearby.

The trust issue 

In 2019, the Royal Town Planning Institute published a research document.  Its subject was large developments; its findings were shocking.  Only 2% of those questioned said they trusted property developers and that number only rose to 7% for local authorities.

Those numbers are unequivocal.  They suggest that something is significantly wrong with the entire sector; a complete breakdown in trust.  The history of false dreams and broken promises is common to so many places.

So how to change this perception?  There is only one way; to build brilliant new places that exceed, or, at the very least, meet expectations.  This is easier said than done, but it is the very basis on which GummerLeathes was founded.  Our aim was to do the right thing and to do it so well that we could create wonderful developments across the country.

A business is only as good as its people.  We sought not just to work with the very best people in the profession, but only those who shared a set of values guiding their entire approach.  Together, we have gone further and created seven principles to ensure that we create great places within which communities can thrive.

 

  1. PEOPLE COME FIRST

Developers should not be judged by the places they build but on the lives of the people who live in and around them.  That starts by asking what they want.  Consultation should not be an exercise in lobbying or negotiation.  It presents an opportunity to listen and learn, and, crucially, to begin by working with local residents rather than despite them.  Local people should help determine what is built, which facilities are included, how the place looks and the ways they will get around.

The impact on people is often forgotten during the development itself.  Neighbours and early residents of the new place can be impacted by noise, dust and traffic.  This can be carefully considered at the outset to minimise the negative aspects of development on people.

 

  1. NATURE MATTERS

The earliest conurbations were built on hilltops and by waterways.  They were defined by their environment.   It is crucial that the new places of tomorrow remember that key principle. Urban sites can and should link seamlessly with nature.  Existing green spaces, animal habitats, streams, rivers and canals should be intrinsic to design. Putting communities first is not just about the people who will buy houses, but the animals, insects and birds who already live there.  In that way, ‘continuity’ can be something tangible and beautiful.

 

  1. COMMUNITIES THRIVE IN OUTDOOR SPACE

Houses, however great they look and feel, do not create communities.  Walls, by their very purpose, separate and divide.  Towns and villages that have grown organically over time, have developed spaces where people gather informally.  These may be near shops and amenities or on dog walks or street corners.  Some have been planned (like ‘boules’ courts across France), others developed through routines.  Others buzz with activity on sports pitches and along purpose-built cycle paths.  Ultimately, communities develop when strangers feel at peace and where conversations strike-up naturally.  It’s not enough to design a place with a ‘hall’ or ‘facility’ to tick a community-box.  The Master Developer has the ability to design somewhere conducive to sociability and interaction. Somewhere whose streets and squares create a flow of enclosures and sequences rather than separated units. Somewhere that serves a community purpose and looks great.

 

  1. PRIORITISE THE PEDESTRIAN

Towns and villages that grew before the Industrial Revolution tend to have narrow streets and places where people can congregate naturally.  Those developed more recently have wider, straighter roads and pedestrians are often forced to take convoluted routes to local destinations.  The reason is simple: the domination of the car and prioritisation of our ever-faster-paced lifestyles across 150 years of planning.

The only way to create the community-friendly places of the past is to design them with the pedestrian (and the cyclist) in mind.  Is it easy and safe to walk to the local school, the shops and the café?  Is there any incentive for the driver to leave the car at home?  Are roads designed to allow swift and efficient entry and exit from the place without dominating?  Are we allowing people to develop healthy lifestyles? In the ongoing battle for control of town centres, the car will always win unless the pedestrian is actively championed.

 

  1. VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE

There is nothing less inspiring than driving past a housing estate with rows of identikit houses.  Our most beautiful towns and villages are anything but uniform.  Old sits next to new; pubs and community buildings nestle comfortably in residential areas; stone, brick, concrete and thatch are compatible neighbours.  The buildings within them are ‘mixed’ in every sense, from their architecture to their purpose.

There is no reason that new places cannot be designed to be equally characterful and eclectic.  Why not walk down a street where the library and the pub sit alongside houses and apartments, and where the weekly shop can take place on the walk back from the school drop-off?

For planners and developers, this is a lesson learned by walking the streets of the excavated Roman city of Pompeii.  Residents lived above shops.  Front gardens were social hubs.  Streets led to the amphitheatre and the forum.  This was mixed living within a clear plan.

 

  1. BUILD LOCAL

Arriving in a seaside town in Cornwall, we would be a little thrown by a street filled with walls of brick and flint.  Walking through a town in the Yorkshire dales, we would be equally surprised to see houses painted in bright pastel shades. The wonderful architectural historian and writer, Alec Clifton-Taylor, described the link between places and their local materials as the ‘pattern of England’.  Places feel natural when they are built using locally sourced materials, enabling the seamless integration of new and old.

 

  1. LIKE PEOPLE, PLACES NEED TO BE NURTURED

Designing, planning and constructing a great-looking place is a wonderful start.  But it is just the start.  Imagine arriving in a town for the first time and you will quickly lose sight of the wonderful architecture if the walls are covered in graffiti, the grass in the central square is uncut, the recycling units are over-flowing, children’s play areas and parks are run-down leaving teenagers, inside and alone, bent over their screens.

In short, it is not enough to build a place, we have to plan for its ongoing maintenance and development.  How will communal areas be protected and conserved? How will the council work alongside the landowners?  How will events be run, promises be fulfilled and visions realised?

A new place is for life, not an asset to be signed-off and forgotten when the developers move on.

 

Let us know

These are things about which we have thought long and hard.  We desperately want to get them right.  Thank you for reading this far and, if you have the time, we’d be so grateful for your thoughts, particularly if you sense there is something important we’ve missed.

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