Is co-creating beautiful places the one thing we can agree on?

By Nicholas Boys

What price the Fixed Term Parliaments Act? General elections now arrive like stacked up busses – three in four years and, who knows, maybe more lovely referendums in years to come.

But just in case this fact is not, in itself, turning your heart into a singing bird, here is some good news. All the manifestos are starting to say sensible things about the importance of design and process in the homes we build and the places we create. And this wasn’t the case a few years ago.

Of course, the heavy artillery of political debate is on tenure. Who owns homes and what you pay to whom to live there – the red meat of politics. You know the battle lines. Labour want to build 100,000 council homes a year and scrap Right to Buy. The Conservatives are about supporting home ownership, maintaining Right to Buy and extending Help to Buy. So far, so unsurprising. There would be big differences on who would build new homes under alternative versions of the future.

Tenure matters. However, so does the nature of place and how you create them. One recent study estimated that up to 40 per cent of our health outcomes might be the consequence of where we live, the air we breathe, how much we walk, our relationships with our neighbours, our levels of daily stress or pride. And feeling the victim of changes to your neighbourhood is also provably bad for your mental health. Whisper it quietly, but there may be an emerging consensus on the critical importance of co-creating better places for humans than we are managing to do at present.

At any rate I hope so. Six years ago I chucked in my job to achieve that and set up the social enterprise Create Streets, which argues that new homes and places should be more popular, more beautiful, and developed in line with the clear evidence of the types of places which people like and where they want to live – and that neighbourhoods should have a far more effective voice in the design and delivery of new places. Real places with real centres and the gentle density of mansion blocks and terraced homes benefiting both from the advantages of greater density (more walking, knowing more of your neighbours, more sustainable energy usage) and also from the advantages of lower density (more space, cleaner air, less stress). People are healthier and happier in such places and leave a fainter environmental footprint. On the ground and in policy debate, we also very actively support empowered tenants and shared ownership. Co-design not consultation. Community-led housing wherever possible. A real sense of ‘agency’, not just of having a pile of brick boxes dropped on top of you.

But everyone, or nearly everyone, laughed. Those on the right, I was told, only cared about feathering the nests of their big developer friends or in a “bonfire of the regulations”. Those on the left, I was informed, only cared about maximising the number of social homes. Everything else was a middle-class distraction.

Well maybe most people do care about the quality of new places after all. At any rate politicians are beginning to assume it is worth talking about. Labour have pledged to create towns and cities which promote walking and cycling. Even more exciting, they promised to support street designs which encourage “physically active outdoor play”. If they went a step further and declared school streets – restricted traffic zones, outside schools – millions of parents of all political colours would cheer. Labour stress local community activity – above all consent on estate regeneration. Quite right.

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If anything, the Conservatives go even further on this pledging to “support communities living on council estates who want to take ownership of the land and buildings they live in”. They also promise to let local areas set their own design standards for new development, “allowing residents a greater say on the style and design of development in their area, with local councils encouraged to build more beautiful architecture”. This reflects the interim report of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (which I co-chair) which was also, rather to everyone’s surprise, widely welcomed by bodies such as the Design Council, the RTPI and RIBA. Does a consensus threaten?

Elsewhere in their manifestos or policy pronouncements the parties support more cycling, streets trees and evince a consistent concern about high streets and may of the “left behind’ towns which are not sharing in the growth of prosperity of the last 30 years. Again, this is sensible stuff. Streets with trees on them are consistently associated with slower traffic, more walking, cleaner air and fewer accidents. And the widening prosperity gap between our cities and our towns will, I am certain, be one of the big themes of the next ten years.

Density, urban form and design matters. At Create Streets, we recently dropped a visual preference algorithm developed at the Turing Institute and trained by 1.5 million responses to over 200,000 images, into just under 19,000 streets and squares in six British cities. We found consistent patterns in the types of places people want to be by comparing the scores of the algorithm with the big data on our cities.

The same algorithm has also shown that, when people go about their daily lives, the act of moving to a more attractive place is linked to better happiness. These are uncertain days. If government and councils want to boost the wellbeing of a Brexit-perturbed populace the answer is staring them in the face. Ask what people find beautiful. Understand where they want to be, and why. You’ll get remarkable agreement from rich to poor, from north to south. And then support that though planning policy not inhuman streets, unsustainable drive-to cul-de sacs and walls of sheer glass.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets.

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