Is co-creating beautiful places the one thing we can agree on?

Quiet density: an artist's impression of how Mount Pleasant could look. Image: Francis Terry/Create Streets.

What price the Fixed Term Parliaments Act? General elections now arrive like stacked up busses – three in four years and, who knows, maybe more lovely referendums in years to come.

But just in case this fact is not, in itself, turning your heart into a singing bird, here is some good news. All the manifestos are starting to say sensible things about the importance of design and process in the homes we build and the places we create. And this wasn’t the case a few years ago.

Of course, the heavy artillery of political debate is on tenure. Who owns homes and what you pay to whom to live there – the red meat of politics. You know the battle lines. Labour want to build 100,000 council homes a year and scrap Right to Buy. The Conservatives are about supporting home ownership, maintaining Right to Buy and extending Help to Buy. So far, so unsurprising. There would be big differences on who would build new homes under alternative versions of the future.

Tenure matters. However, so does the nature of place and how you create them. One recent study estimated that up to 40 per cent of our health outcomes might be the consequence of where we live, the air we breathe, how much we walk, our relationships with our neighbours, our levels of daily stress or pride. And feeling the victim of changes to your neighbourhood is also provably bad for your mental health. Whisper it quietly, but there may be an emerging consensus on the critical importance of co-creating better places for humans than we are managing to do at present.

At any rate I hope so. Six years ago I chucked in my job to achieve that and set up the social enterprise Create Streets, which argues that new homes and places should be more popular, more beautiful, and developed in line with the clear evidence of the types of places which people like and where they want to live – and that neighbourhoods should have a far more effective voice in the design and delivery of new places. Real places with real centres and the gentle density of mansion blocks and terraced homes benefiting both from the advantages of greater density (more walking, knowing more of your neighbours, more sustainable energy usage) and also from the advantages of lower density (more space, cleaner air, less stress). People are healthier and happier in such places and leave a fainter environmental footprint. On the ground and in policy debate, we also very actively support empowered tenants and shared ownership. Co-design not consultation. Community-led housing wherever possible. A real sense of ‘agency’, not just of having a pile of brick boxes dropped on top of you.

But everyone, or nearly everyone, laughed. Those on the right, I was told, only cared about feathering the nests of their big developer friends or in a “bonfire of the regulations”. Those on the left, I was informed, only cared about maximising the number of social homes. Everything else was a middle-class distraction.

Well maybe most people do care about the quality of new places after all. At any rate politicians are beginning to assume it is worth talking about. Labour have pledged to create towns and cities which promote walking and cycling. Even more exciting, they promised to support street designs which encourage “physically active outdoor play”. If they went a step further and declared school streets – restricted traffic zones, outside schools – millions of parents of all political colours would cheer. Labour stress local community activity – above all consent on estate regeneration. Quite right.

If anything, the Conservatives go even further on this pledging to “support communities living on council estates who want to take ownership of the land and buildings they live in”. They also promise to let local areas set their own design standards for new development, “allowing residents a greater say on the style and design of development in their area, with local councils encouraged to build more beautiful architecture”. This reflects the interim report of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (which I co-chair) which was also, rather to everyone’s surprise, widely welcomed by bodies such as the Design Council, the RTPI and RIBA. Does a consensus threaten?

Elsewhere in their manifestos or policy pronouncements the parties support more cycling, streets trees and evince a consistent concern about high streets and may of the "left behind’ towns which are not sharing in the growth of prosperity of the last 30 years. Again, this is sensible stuff. Streets with trees on them are consistently associated with slower traffic, more walking, cleaner air and fewer accidents. And the widening prosperity gap between our cities and our towns will, I am certain, be one of the big themes of the next ten years.

Density, urban form and design matters. At Create Streets, we recently dropped a visual preference algorithm developed at the Turing Institute and trained by 1.5 million responses to over 200,000 images, into just under 19,000 streets and squares in six British cities. We found consistent patterns in the types of places people want to be by comparing the scores of the algorithm with the big data on our cities.

The same algorithm has also shown that, when people go about their daily lives, the act of moving to a more attractive place is linked to better happiness. These are uncertain days. If government and councils want to boost the wellbeing of a Brexit-perturbed populace the answer is staring them in the face. Ask what people find beautiful. Understand where they want to be, and why. You’ll get remarkable agreement from rich to poor, from north to south. And then support that though planning policy not inhuman streets, unsustainable drive-to cul-de sacs and walls of sheer glass.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).