The National Trust is 125 – so here are 12 urban properties it’s preserving

Sutton House, Hackney, London. Image: Ethan Doyle White/Wikimedia Commons.

What built architecture do we value? What should we save for future generations? The properties held by the National Trust, which turns 125 this month, provides a history of how hard it is to shift a conservative concept of preservation.

Octavia Hill was a social housing reformer and one of the founders of the Trust in 1895. She sought to preserve access to green spaces, and coined the term green belt. The first acquisitions were rural by nature and in scale. The Trust borrowed an artisanal approach to restoration from William Morris’s arts and crafts movement.

However, in the post-war period the Trust rapidly gained lots of country estates as owners offset death duties by donating their ancestral homes. The alternative was demolition. This is where the image problem for the Trust really kicked in. Preserving the country estates meant preserving symbols of privilege – and helping their former owners out of a financial hole.

By 1967, 4,000 members were so concerned about the lack of diversity in the Trust’s governance that they called an Extraordinary General Meeting to threaten a vote of no confidence. Ironically, one of the key recommendations from the subsequent Benson report was to allow more tearooms on their sites. The tearoom and gift shop are now part of the stereotype of a Trust member.

In 2019 the Trust published a ten year strategy to address the risk to urban heritage, and estimated that there are some 3,000 Grade II properties ‘at risk’ and with potential for the Trust to help preserve. That report states that urban properties simply don’t get the same visitor numbers as the rural ones, and that there remain diversity issues across the heritage sector.

We, as a nation, simply don’t see the same value in the everyday built environment – or at least, those of us with a disposable income to spend on visiting heritage don’t. How many of the half a million visitors a year who traipse through Cliveden would as happily donate the same entrance fee to see a former squat or a suburban terrace? We prefer stories about great estates falling into decay to more complex stories around people’s everyday lives.

Tucked away on the Trust’s list of properties and sites, there are some urban places, reachable by public transport. These tend to be a lot more diverse than the country estates – so below are twelve properties I think highlight how the Trust are trying to change the stories we tell about our history through what we choose to save.

Grand designs

Three urban properties provide very different approaches.

Treasurers House, York

Back in 1930, this was the first house complete with contents to be gifted to the Trust. The interior is laid out as a giant cabinet of curiosities exactly as the owner, a wealthy industrialist, stipulated. He threatened to return as a ghost should anything be moved, but he’d need to compete for attention with the ghostly Roman centurions in the basement.

Sutton House, Hackney, London

From the outside this is a Tudor house with a courtyard garden. Inside, the tour timeslips to the 1980s where the Hackney property was a squat complete with a gig space. The Trust have just worked with local schools and artists to explore how the house was built on profits from the colonial East India Company.

Rainham Hall, London/Essex

This may be the most traditional building on this list, being a classic Queen Anne style merchant’s house. It’s been occupied by over 30 families or organisations though, so has no contents passed down. Instead the Trust works with local makers to create exhibitions about different historical occupants. It’s also been used as Scrooge’s house in the recent BBC adaptation of Christmas Carol.

Our house, in the middle of our street

The Trust have a variety of everyday domestic homes. All of these are only accessible on limited guided tours. These are also often time capsule sites, where they are dressed to make you feel the occupants have just stepped outside, like beached Mary Celestes.

Back-to-backs, Birmingham

The Birmingham back-to-backs. Image: NotFromUtrecht/Wikimedia Commons.

This court illustrates how people lived in one of the biggest cities in the UK between the 1850s and 1970s. It includes the George Saunders tailoring collection, amassed by a tailor who arrived from the Caribbean in 1958 and ran his workshop in the buildings until 2001.

Mr Straw’s House, Worksop

Another outwardly normal suburban house, but this time a very British Grey Gardens. A shopkeeper and his wife moved in and decorated in the 1920s. After their deaths, their two remaining sons lived there until 1990 without modernising. The decaying house was left, along with its contents, to the Trust.

2 Willow Road, London

Willow Road is a 1930s modernist terraced house designed by architect Erno Goldfinger. He went on to design more iconic Brutalist buildings for local authorities, such as the now-listed Balfron and Trellick Towers. Ian Fleming hated it so much he named a Bond villian after the architect.

The Beatles’ childhood homes, Liverpool

The Trust has both Lennon and McCartney’s teenage homes. These are a 1930s semi and a council terrace house respectively and have been decorated to replicate their state in the late 1950s. The Trust had initially declined to buy Lennon’s home, and it was being literally sold off brick by brick as souvenirs. Yoko Ono bought it and gifted it to the Trust to stop it vanishing.

575 Wandsworth Road, London

This is outwardly ordinary, an anonymous Victorian terrace on an A-road. The inside, however, is so delicate only 2000 visitors are allowed a year, and you need to bring your slippers. Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist, philosopher of mathematics and civil servant, decorated every surface with fretwork and paintings.

Working sites

The majority of Trust buildings are residential properties, but there are a handful of industrial sites. A few still actually operate as designed. This feels a long way from trudging through a great house’s kitchen to look at pretend food.

George Inn, Southwark, London

The George Inn, Southwark. Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

This is a working Southwark pub, built in 1677, off Borough High Street and about five minutes’ walk from London Bridge. It’s a galleried coaching inn, mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit.

The Crown, Belfast

It’s a Victorian gin palace with mosaic tiles and gas lighting, with original booths (i.e. a snug bar). As with George Inn, it’s a working pub you can actually just use.

City Mill, Winchester

This is a centuries old working watermill that has been bought back into use this century, after decades as a youth hostel.

Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

The only working theatre on the Trust’s list, and is the last working Regency theatre in the UK. You can go to the panto and check out the building at the same time. Theatres are stupidly expensive buildings to maintain, as the recent building failures in the West End have illustrated.


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.