What "underbounding" means – and why you should care about it

Sometimes the boundary is just too tight. Image: Broc, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cities are on the up. More and more people want to live in them; innovation and economic growth are increasingly emanating them. So is designer coffee, come to that.

Cities aren’t just getting bigger; they’re getting more competitive. Countries aren’t where it’s at any more: cities from different continents are competing directly with one another. If this were the Olympic Games, you could forget the country parade at the start, it’s every athlete for herself.

So is it all about cities now then, is it? Well, no. Although cities may be wonderful places, they’re dependent for many things on the areas round them: open space for recreation, housing for workers who travel in from outlying suburbs or commuter towns, office space for businesses which want to locate outside the city but within easy reach. And above all, cities need space to grow.

That’s because, all over the world, the way cities are run has not kept pace with this brave new world. In particular, in many countries, cites are underbounded: a technical term which translates as “having a boundary too close in”. What this means is that, in many parts of the world, the areas around cities are governed by independent organisations.

The OECD has published a list of what it really takes for a city to be successful these days. One of their key abilities is “governance for functional geographies”: in other words, those which are most successful are those which have worked out how to cooperate with their immediate neighbouring.

In England and Wales this no less necessary than anywhere else. Many of our cities are underbounded, included those with the best prospects for substantial future job growth. These maps put together by Matthew Spry, of the planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners expresses the problem graphically. The grey is the built up area, which, in many cities, runs right up to the boundary. Much of the green space is flood plain.

Oxford and Cambridge

Reading and Norwich

Southampton and Northampton

In a report out last month the Royal Town Planning Institute looked at planning for housing, jobs and transport and the environment over areas wider than a single council – a process we call strategic planning. The report looked at 14 case studies in the UK, Ireland, France and Australia: cities which had in different ways got to grips with this challenge.

Here’s what we found that cities should be focusing on:

  • Setting agendas so that all parts of a wider area – especially the outer areas – stand to gain from cooperation;
  • Letting areas – such as counties and city regions – devise their own means of cooperation;
  • Making sure the cooperation arrangements  cover a wide range of activities – not just housing, but also jobs and transport;
  • Getting strong buy in from local politicians  and businesses;
  • Making sure you look beyond the edge of the area over which you’re cooperating.

In England we haven’t always got this balance right. Some governments have enforced co-operation, others seemed unbothered as to whether it happens much at all – to the detriment of housing supply.

Government could help this process along by rewarding the hard work on getting joint plans for enough houses agreed – but at the moment there is no mechanism for doing this. Perhaps when the government gives grants in City Deals or Growth Deals, it should stipulate that genuinely providing enough houses is required.

Richard Blyth is head of policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


*See Rt Hon Greg Clark & Greg Clark Nations and the Wealth of Cities Centre for London 2014



Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.

Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.