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High density doesn't have to mean high rise. Some of the most appealing places to live are also those with the most homes per hectare - and they're far more sustainable than the green belted suburbs. Ben Walker reports.
England’s decaying tower blocks, which pockmark its cityscapes and offer embarrassing reminders of past planning failures, make igniting any public passion for high density a tough job.
But it’s one which is badly needed. The dream of escaping to a country house may have become a national obsession, but it’s deeply unsustainable. There’s only so much rural idyll to go around, and for most it’s increasingly unaffordable. Meanwhile, continued economic growth in the south has pushed up house prices to the extent that one half of Londoners cannot afford to buy a home in their own city, placing severe pressure on outlying land. The impact of London’s success can now be seen in a super-conurbation that reaches out 80 miles from Charing Cross to East Anglia, Northamptonshire and Hampshire. If we still want a countryside worthy of the name, we will have to grow used to living in closer proximity to one another.
Try telling that to your average English family, though, for whom high density living means subsisting in a tower block. But it doesn’t need to be that way. “It’s a myth that high density means high rise,” insists Alex Ely, housing co-ordinator of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. Indeed, some of London’s plushest neighbourhoods are built to a classic high density design - three- or fourstorey terracing overlooking private squares. “The area of the UK with the highest housing density is Kensington and Chelsea,” says a housing spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. “And if everywhere was designed like Eaton Square, where Nigella Lawson lives, it would solve London’s housing crisis.”
It’s a crisis which has been exacerbated by the way in which the South’s outer suburbs have sprawled far and wide, using a lot of land to house relatively few people. Ironically, many of those who have moved to spacious semis in Surrey still go into raptures at the thought of living in the heart of Florence or Paris. But if London were built to Paris’s density, it would house 35 million people.”
Tower blocks aside, it is low density, not high, that can be blamed for many of England’s worst housing disasters. Many parts of the south are carpeted with soulless estates, where you have to drive everywhere because there are not enough people per hectare to make shops, pubs and restaurants viable. The government’s Urban Task Force, chaired by leading architect Richard Rogers, regards 500 metres as the furthest distance anyone should be asked to walk to their local centre. Its research shows that where densities fall below 20 homes per hectare, one local centre typically serves all the homes in a 1.5 kilometre diameter, over half of which lie further than a five minute walk away from the centre. “This form of layout promotes excessive car use and [as a result] makes it difficult to justify a bus route,” the task force concludes. And driving to supermarkets means people forsake daily contact with local traders, which leads to low density estates having little feeling of community, of heartland or ‘place’. “They suffer from blandness,” says Ely. “They are designed for nowhere and seen everywhere. They lack any sense of context with their surroundings.”
Where densities are higher - 40 homes or more per hectare - there are usually enough people to make services walkable, and buses worthwhile. And, contrary to common assumptions, it can make for a more appealing living environment. “The critical mass of development contributes to the informal vitality of the streets...and that attracts people to urban neighbourhoods,” concludes the task force’s report, Towards an Urban Renaissance. “High density is liveable,” says Architect Les Koski, director of affordable housing specialist KSR. “It’s low density that isn’t.”
Not everyone needs convincing. A group which housing expert Professor Tony Champion dubs the ‘new city lovers’ has grown fond of dense urban living in the last decade, but they’re largely made up of apartment-dwelling childless couples and singletons. “To make effective cities”, says Alex Ely, “we have to attract families” - and one of the most effective ways of doing that is to provide plenty of accessible green space. Most tower blocks boast large swathes of it around their base, but ineffective design means these are often left to rot by residents. “There’s no sense of ownership because these pieces of land tend to bleed into the outside world,” says Ely. “Compare these with a classic Georgian square, where there’s a sense of privacy and surveillance.”
Architecture, like fashion, can sometimes go round in circles, and similar designs are used today to good effect. Ely cites as an impressive modern example Coin Street in Southwark, where residents live around - and are responsible for - a private garden. Across London, Hackney Council and Southern Housing Group are replacing tower blocks at the Nightingale estate with high density, low rise housing. Here, a garden is provided for every new ground floor house, and a play area has been constructed in the middle of the estate. At Ravenswood in Ipswich, private developer Bellway Homes won a competition to develop a council’s masterplan and is building family houses alongside an onsite primary school and sports park. There will be 45 homes per hectare on completion. “But it doesn’t feel that way because of the open space between the houses,” says project manager Ian Millard.
Where space can be shared, so too can cost. This opens up the opportunity to use greener sources of energy, which are normally more expensive than traditional methods. The celebrated BedZed in Beddington, south London, for example [see GF 22, p 28, and p30 in this issue] is a high density development fuelled by a combined heat and power unit that makes use of the capital’s tree waste. It claims to be the first UK housing scheme that does not add to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The density - 50 homes and 120 workspaces per hectare - makes viable the use of a district boiler system, which heats every living space from a central point. “The higher the density, the more efficiency we can offer people, because it spreads the cost over a large number of homes,” says Chris Willford of Bill Dunster Architects (BDA), which designed the scheme. And, he adds, high density homes are more energy efficient than standalone structures, because there is less surface area per home for heat to escape from.
Until recently, council-driven projects like BedZed would have been unheard of. Councils’ hands were tied by the need to accept the most financially-attractive bid - which would inevitably exclude most environmentally-inspired designs. The shift in favour of the ‘Best Value’ approach has given them more leeway, and BDA are now hopeful of seeing at least two more schemes get the green light. “Unless they are strapped for cash, most councils are willing,” says Willford. “The change in policy has been very good for our cause.”
High density living can also work wonders for the social mix. “We’ve seen in the past the dangers of single tenure estates,” says Ely. “We created gated communities of professionals at the expense of key workers.” But in the leading high density schemes, private and social housing sits side-by-side, impossible to tell apart. “Mixed tenure creates a more diverse community,” says Ely. “Social tenants benefit from high numbers of owner occupiers who have an interest in maintaining the place; and they in turn benefit from their local schools and hospitals being suitably staffed [by their neighbours].
And the proof of the appeal of such schemes lies in the sales figures. Only 40% of new homes at Nightingale are designed for owner-occupation - yet the first batch sold straight from the architects’ plans.
Ben Walker is economic development editor of Regeneration & Renewal www.regenerationmagazine.com