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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.