The fall and rise of the terraced house shows how far our attitudes to architecture can change

Terraced houses in Newport, South Wales. Image: Getty.

Couching its proposal in language reminiscent of urban policy and housing debates of the 1980s and 1990s, the UK government says it will spend £140m to kick start the demolition or refurbishment of nearly 100 estates and rehouse their displaced residents.

The idea that the design and physical environment of modernist housing estates has contributed to social problems and concentrations of criminality is a longstanding one. Announcing the initiative, the prime minister, David Cameron, said that three out of four rioters in the disturbances that swept through some English cities in 2011 “came from these post-war estates” and not from within terraced streets or low-rise apartment buildings”. He argued:

Within these so-called sink estates, behind front doors, families build warm and welcoming homes. But step outside in the worst estates and you’re confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers.s

This seems to mark a powerful return to mainstream political discourse of the notion of “environmental determinism” – the idea that physical environments shape individual behaviour and social and economic conditions. By bulldozing some of what are deemed to be the “worst” estates or improving others, the hope is that social phenomena such as drug use and gang culture can be tackled.

The initiative is to be led by Michael Heseltine, who in the 1980s drove a previous Conservative government’s response to social, environmental and economic issues in what Margaret Thatcher famously termed “those inner cities”. Their modernist tower blocks and terraced streets have certainly enjoyed changing political fortunes over the years. Yet while the tower block is once again firmly in the dock, the terraced house seems to be enjoying a reversal in its fortunes.

Cultural shifts

The terraced house was the vernacular domestic architectural form of English industrial towns and cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Middlesborough. Built as a response to the rapid urban growth of the 19th century, each successive wave of comprehensive redevelopment in English cities has had to decide how to address the terraces. At different times they have been variously classified as slums, unfit for human habitation or no longer appropriate to current needs, and frequently demolished as a result.

Modernist environments often replaced these generally well-planned, solidly built, streets of terraces – and the dense functioning neighbourhoods they supported. But many of these failed almost as soon as they were completed, landing many local councils with repayment costs long after these new environments were demolished.

From the 1960s, a greater societal concern for heritage and the qualities of existing buildings and urban environments started to be reflected in new legislation and ways of planning. The shift to refurbishment, rather than the clearance of houses, in the 1970s reflected this.

However, by the 2000s, some policymakers were again starting to conceive of terraced housing as problematic. In particular its prevalence in some areas was seen as one cause of “low demand” or weakly functioning housing markets. The Labour government’s “Housing Market Renewal” programme, which ran from 2002-2011, assumed that some areas were unattractive to aspirational people because of a “monolithic” supply of pre-1919 terraced houses. This was despite the fact that in the same period in London and elsewhere such houses were highly sought after and rising in value. The programme may have funded more refurbishment than demolition overall, but more clearance of terraces was mooted and carried out than at any time since the 1970s.

The logic seemed to be “fix your housing market to help fix your economy” rather than the more conventional view – illustrated by the rise of property prices in economically buoyant cities at the time – that a growing urban economy will tend to lift property prices.

Many proposals for demolition faced tough opposition from those who didn’t wish to be rehoused, or didn’t share the view that their homes were somehow terminally deficient. Responding to some of the criticisms of the initiative, but also no doubt with an eye to reducing public spending, the programme was scrapped by the last coalition government.

Since then the terraced house has slowly but surely seen its star rise again. There was enthusiastic uptake and media coverage of the Homes for a Pound scheme in Liverpool and other similar schemes.

Granby Four Streets area in Liverpool. Image courtesy of Ronnie Hughes.

The 2015 Turner Prize was won by architects working with residents who had stood against demolition to refurbish the “Granby Four Streets” area, also in Liverpool, while the city’s council recently announced that it would no longer pursue demolition of most of the nearby Welsh Streets area but instead pursue refurbishment of a “significant proportion” of homes instead.

Perhaps the key lesson from previous episodes of urban housing renewal is that, before making sweeping generalisations about an area, it’s essential to understand and respect the complexities and nuances of real places and lives.

As the government embarks on its plans to transform what it rather dismissively brands “sink estates”, a nuanced approach that goes beyond simply “blaming buildings” for certain societal problems is crucial. A Policy Studies Institute report from 1991 reminds us to be wary of “simplistic solutions”, stressing that: “Most residential neighbourhoods are complex social entities, best understood by those who live there.”

Yet the residents of zones designated for urban renewal are often still presented as problematic, in need of management or control; or as victims of circumstances, in need of assistance; or being incapable of effecting change in their own lives or communities.

If renewal not removal of communities is the goal, then such positions run the risk of denying agency and influence to local residents and of repeating previous failures, rather than learning from what has contributed to success in the past. In particular, before assuming that any housing type contributes to or helps resolve certain societal issues, engaging well with those who actually live in it will always be essential.The Conversation

Olivier Sykes is a lecturer in European spatial planning at the University of Liverpool.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.