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 see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.