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.


Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.

The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.