How better design could help solve the housing crisis

Milton Keynes, city of dreams. And roundabouts. Image: Getty.

Described by the late Sir Roger Scruton as “recognisable only by its superlative ugliness”, Milton Keynes marked its 50th anniversary two years ago. The American styled grid system development was the 1970s answer to the UK’s housing problem. Built for its efficiency in the utopian age of the car, the concept has since been met with both its loyalist supporters as well as its staunchest critics.

Despite its very user friendly design, it is certainly hard not to sympathise with some of the latter views. Its compartmentalised lay-out, divided into rigid districts without any conventional highstreet, as well as its distinct lack of an architectural style, leaves the individual questioning exactly what or where Milton Keynes actually is. 

Although the famous grid system did not become common place in town planning, the concept of nothingness sadly did. By driving to the edge of any traditional town, you are able to see its influence. Moving through the higgledy-piggledy streets, organically grown over centuries, built from the local materials available at the time, you are abruptly met with a sudden sense of soullessness. Ahead of you, a sprouting new development, bolted on, with what seems to be little or no thought on what it would actually mean to inhabit such a place. The charming vernacular, replaced with a red brick, box-like dystopia. Built in the most simplistic architectural form available, the suburban, car-centric design relies solely on the existing built forms to supply any sort of focal or communal point.

An alarming but sadly an all too frequent sight. But how have we got to a point where an M1 service station has more character and a sense of place than developments supposedly built to create a community that people cherish and love?

This suburban sprawl model, efficient and cost effective to build, has consistently been pushed by developers as an answer to the UK housing crisis. In line with this, and arguably a more damaging factor altogether, a highly competitive land market has further dictated the direction in which the industry has drifted. The competitive nature of land purchases means developers are driven to maximise units per acre in order to improve the land price. 

In a cost saving exercise, anything that doesn’t reflect immediate value is stripped back. Whether it is the trees that align the streets, the architectural features that adorn the properties or the open spaces that abut the houses, all of these reflect either an added cost or, equally, loss of potential real estate value to the land buyer. What is left, therefore, is a development built purely for its utility, devoid of beauty or sense of place, with no thought on the role the built environment plays on the people who will inevitably occupy these properties.

In 2018, however, the Conservatives set out to tackle this problem, creating the ’Building Better Building Beautiful’ Commission, influenced by the likes of Plato, Ruskin and Kant. The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton was chosen to head the commission. Its aim: to demonstrate the ability, not only build more houses, but to build them with the fundamental value of beauty at the heart of design.

Predictably, the announcement of the commission was met with a number of politically charged criticisms. Concerns ranging from architectural elitism to the metaphysical question of “who are you to define beauty” were levelled. In an age of postmodernist thinking, it was indeed unsurprising that a commission looking to objectify beauty was met with such rigour and scrutiny. Once again, however, we were back at the place where Hume began: beauty was merely a matter of taste.

Fast forward a year, however and consensus has spoken. It may well be true that we are unable to define beauty on an objective or subjective level, but the general preferences of the public surely provides the most substantial claims to tackle this debate. 

The research was clear. With the help of the Policy Exchange, as well as tireless sociological and psychological research by companies such as Createstreets, the commission has looked back in order to move forward. The recent announcement of the unprecedented national design code draws strongly upon classical pattern book vernacular for its answers to placemaking, and  uses modern day examples such as Nansleden and Poundbury as illustrations of what can be achieved.

The design code sets out a broad collection of principles which each local authority should adhere to and adapt, setting out a number of ways which social wellbeing can be improved through design and aesthetics. Its research was clear: by creating a community with a sense of belonging, ’wellbeing’ will be enhanced. And its approach is simple: life would come from the buildings.

To achieve this the design code would offer a how to guide on everything, from the composition of facades and the creation of streets to the harmonisation of scales and the distribution of open space. These are by no means radical ideas, merely ones that have been neglected in recent times: the use of traditional low-rise, high-density streets with clear fronts and clear backs in which it is easy to walk, for example; or the use of mixed residential, commercial and retail streets. 

Such principles are not commonplace in development currently, but are vital in both the concept of autonomous walkable environments, creating a sense of community and social cohesion. They look to the use of busy street facades, bristling with variety with the power to improve neighbourly interactions; the use of modest front gardens or steps to the front door all of which increase social interaction and create a sense of place. The right use of green spaces can also provide benefits, while the simple use of street trees not only improves the aesthetic nature of design but is also proven to enhance mental health.

A clear thread ran straight through the document. Creating a sense of place equals happy and desirable communities. Take London for example. Although victim to the concept of urban sprawl, the capital benefits from a rather unique situation. It’s vast growth over the last century has seen the subsequent swallowing up of many traditional villages and hamlets. Once set in rolling countryside, built with all the necessary functions to serve its autonomous community, the villages now play a fundamental role in forming the London we see today. Whether you visit Nunhead, Hackney or Islington, for example, you can’t help but be struck by the sense of place and community, despite modern architects’ best endeavour. 

In order to highlight this, however, the commission used more recent developments such as Prince Charles’ Poundbury and Nansledan. This is an interesting example and poses an altogether different question. Are places such as Poundbury beautiful? Can a copy of something really be beautiful?

Ruskin’s interpretation of Poundbury would have been a fascinating one. Appreciation for the gothic elements, dotted around the site, would have quickly been replaced by  bewilderment at what lay behind the facade. 

A pastiche copy of something could certainly not be a thing of beauty in Ruskin’s eyes. In the world of art, it is an easy debate to be had. The experience of an individual when exposed to a copy of say the Mona Lisa differs exponentially in comparison to exposure to the real thing. Scruton’s argument, however, would be one based on the fact that if we are unable to offer anything new in its place, then the best option we have is to copy a tried and tested model.

Maybe Ruskin’s stance on Poundbury would have loosened a little on the realisation of just how far aesthetics in architecture had slipped since his Victorian heyday. 

Who knows. But one thing that we can be sure of is his appreciation of the idea that elevation of the individual can be achieved through aesthetics. There are certainly examples of that at Poundbury. By creating a sense of place through good traditional design forms, individuals are able to find meaning and pride both within their own lives and the community around them. The flourishing local businesses within Poundbury, which contribute over £98m to the local economy, are a strong example of this. 

Not only can you create better communities with such design but you can also improve the country’s housing delivery. I experienced first-hand, during my time with a volume house builder that, without doubt, the biggest cause of hold-ups in planning applications is the disagreement over aesthetics. Developers, at every opportunity, will try and utilise their standard design product, in a one-size fits all approach. This approach is, more often than not, met with a popular resistance, causing substantial delays. As a result, the council is left between a rock and a hard place: approve the application and meet government housing targets, or stand firm and uphold the vernacular values of the area but miss them.

By appreciating the aesthetic nuances of each area, this unneeded resistance will be removed, therefore allowing proposed developments to smoothly navigate the time consuming planning system. The fear is not the idea of development growth itself, but the execution of that development – a fear that is rooted in the idea that, if resistance is not upheld, their charming town, stooped in vernacular history, may just become another version of Milton Keynes. 

Whether the commission will achieve its aim of bringing beauty back to design is a complex question. It’s success will come down to whether or not a localised system, with a poor track record, can effectively implement such an ideology. The creation of the new national design code, however, finally highlights a growing belief that has taken all but 52 years to bubble to the surface. No longer are people willing to allow developers to neglect their responsibility in the quest for profit. 

Milton Keynes did, therefore, serve its purpose. It reminded all political parties of what a housing policy, driven purely by delivery at the neglect of aesthetics, will achieve. It is certainly hoped that the work over the last two years will reflect a definitive moment where, finally, a better balance between these two seemingly contrasting factors can be found – reintegrating, at last, the concept of placemaking to the UK planning system.

Hugo Owen is a former employee of one of the volume housebuilders.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.