How do we make new homes more popular? Nine lessons for councillors and planners

An artist's impression of Mount Pleasant Circus. Image: Francis Terry/Create Streets.

It might be social change; it might be social media. But whatever the cause, it’s clear that not everyone is quite happy with how representative democracy works these days.

In planning, certainly, the tectonic plates are going to have to shift to better reflect what people want and like. Development control processes, high land costs, short term funding, housing regulations, building regulations, design convention: our research has found that, all too often, a miasma of these different factors actually make it harder to build the sort of conventional places most people provably prefer.

Consider the case of the Mount Pleasant development site in central London. The Royal Mail Group, the landowner, has proposed to build 681 flats, of which 23 would be affordable – a scheme designed to fit with the London Plan and local rules.

But the large blocks this would involve have proved deeply unpopular with locals. In a survey of 258 local residents, eight times as many locals submitted negative comments as positive ones, and support for the scheme stood at just 1 per cent. The main objection, featuring in two thirds of responses, is the height and massing of buildings. “It’s like a fortress,” read a typical comment.


Working with and for the local community, Create Streets has worked up an alternative design, Mount Pleasant Circus. This would include around 715 homes, so can provide around more affordable homes, too. Our scheme attracted over 90 per cent support in a survey of local residents. One typical comment read: “The whole of London would fight for Mount Pleasant Circus.”

In a telling insight into why and how councils and the GLA need to change their approach, however, one developer commented: “Very beautiful. You’ll never get it through planning.”

It surely cannot be right that a hugely popular, higher-density scheme is less well aligned with the development and planning process than one that is hated.

In our recent pop-up poll on what types of housing people would actually want built, 87 per cent preferred homes of more traditional designs. Revealingly, of the 13 per cent who preferred less historically-referenced buildings, nearly half (43 per cent) worked as planners, architects or in creative arts.

The poll was indicative, rather than scientific – but it is consistent with several older studies. These have found a measurable disconnect between what architects appreciate in the built environment, and what the rest of the population want. People, it transpires, are from Mars. Professionals are from Venus.

And design matters. Our polling with MORI has shown that popular design can halve opposition to development. But unpopular design halves support.

So, what can we do about it? Create Streets has published a guide for councillors about how to win support for new homes. At its heart were three principles: building a proper factual understanding of what people want; embedding this in strategy and decision-making; and pushing for economic decisions to be made on basis of longer not shorter term economics.

Here are nine lessons the research holds for councillors.

  • 1. Find our what actual numerical evidence housing and planning teams have on what types of built form, material, typology and style local people prefer. We have never met any team who can answer this question with statistically robust data.
  • 2. If they don’t have it do some proper research, using pictures and polling to get a usable and meaningful understanding. If officials won’t do the research, councillors should do it themselves, using online polling. Thanks to improving technology this can done increasingly cheaply.
  • 3. Publish the results. Ask officials how they intend to embed this evidence in the council’s strategy and development-control decision-making.
  • 4. Find out if any borough strategy or other rules make it hard to produce the type of built environment that people most prefer. Changes might be necessary.
  • 5. Encourage communities to form neighbourhood forums and use neighbourhood plans – not to be NIMBYs, but to positively set out the types of urban form and buildings that they like.
  • 6. Don’t just think about style or materials – also think about “typology”, “form” and, yes, streets. What it is about the way in which some older developments are arranged, about their walkability, that people seem to love?
  • 7. Don’t be fooled by the old lie that high density must equal high rise or large blocks. High density categorically does not require high rise or large blocks. With the right urban design and planning you can normally achieve high (though not ludicrous) densities within a perfectly conventional street-scape.
  • 8. Don’t be fooled by viability assessments. Every developer we have spoken to about it in private has admitted to us, that you can make them say nearly whatever you want. Viability assessments must be transparent.
  • 9. Push for whole life costings of buildings, not just short term economics. Huge buildings’ economics look much less good understood through this prism.

The question we need to answer isn’t “how do we build more homes” – it’s “how do we make new homes more popular.” The planning system needs to change, to give much greater focus to what people want and like.

Improving technology, social media, the desperate need to build more houses in a politically acceptable fashion and – perhaps above all – collapsing confidence in an inefficiently representative state all demand it. Like it or not, the direct planning revolution is coming.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.