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Environment / Climate change

Only bottom up development can end the housing crisis and regenerate our cities

How did housing become so complicated? How did it even become a crisis?

Housing used to be a basic instinct: people just did it. And it was never the domain of government. It is only in the past three generations, reaching its nadir in the 20th century command and control war economies, that governments and town halls began to feel it was their responsibility to solve the problem – a problem that had never existed before.

As civilisation evolved, we learned how to house our families and build civil society. We formed great neighbourhoods that were socially diverse and inclusive. We built millions of homes that we value today – homes built by thousands and thousands of builders.

But ever since the mid-20th century, governments have assumed the lead, building shiny new things in places where people do not want to be. “Let’s see the house is a machine for living.” “Let’s call it a garden city again.” “With cookie cutter solutions, we can build more.”  

So, why have we ended up like this? What can London learn from other cities’ approaches?

Caught between the rising graphs of urbanisation and the falling graphs of government funding and effectiveness, few city halls believe they can fully deliver on their citizens’ needs. Many governments have given up, and let the private sector solve the problem that never existed. They flog off all our publicly-owned land to the big players. They can deliver, the thinking goes, and no doubt deal with our difficult social issues as well.

We now see housing as a numbers game. But using the ideas, tools and tactics that governments have today, they are doomed to failure.

Our leaders forgot that the beauty of housing is that it can be reduced to the smallest unit of delivery: a single building, a terrace of buildings, a street of buildings. If the essential conditions are put in place to enable growth and change, many people can build.

Cities like London have become locked into “top down” notions of regeneration, dominated by City Hall and top developers. But other cities are increasingly examining “bottom up” approaches to it. Look at Brussels’ Self-Made City, or Paris’s involvement of stakeholders in redeveloping the La Corneuve district in the banlieue

The revitalisation of cities like Berlin and Hamburg has seen councils assume the mantle of facilitator; in these neighbourhoods, they have set up a framework of design principles, managing the basic infrastructure and offering smaller plots for building.

As the attractive new facades of the Hamburg waterside or Brussels Self-Made City show, all this adds up to a sustainable approach to regeneration that offers multiple building uses as the community grows. Let’s not forget the economics, either: Berlin is delivering homes up to 40 per cent cheaper than London, a record that City Hall should envy.

This “bottom up” approach does not mean a headlong plunge into self-build, although this could be part of it. We need to redefine the private sector to include all of us, not just the big guys. It means opening up the market to the widest possible opportunities, making it work equitably for the individual, the collective and the corporate.

The Middlehaven development in the North East shows a way forward. Here a brownfield site – the original heart of Middlesbrough, marginalised by the town’s later growth – is the focus of building by smaller developers and self-builder pioneers. 

The council is adapting its role from outsourcing the area’s regeneration, to become a hub or facilitator offering small plots for building. It’s setting out a design framework for new approaches to building that re-establish the fine grain of a community that will otherwise be lost.  Many town halls, despite the ravages of austerity, relish their role as enablers of the community – and they have the appetite for more of these “hands-off” development models.

People alone will always struggle to deliver housing. That is why we need more effective and inclusive government for building: not to solve the problem, but to release its potential. We need, as city planner David Crane has said, “a city of a thousand designers”. In a UK economy where a staggering 4.6m and counting are now self-employed, the instinct to self-organise in communities has never been clearer.

Everyone, it seems, knows of a city or neighbourhood regeneration they admire. But until now, no-one – councils, planners or communities  ̶  has shared the best ideas and come up with a common set of ideas and tools, to make it happen at scale. 

We need to inspire a “city of a hundred thousand builders”.  We need a city of a million small sites, and to protect and incentivise their smallness. Rather than thinking big, we need to think massive small.

Kelvin Campbell runs the Smart Urbanism social network and the Massive Small campaign. He is visiting professor at Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL, London. He also wrote CABE’s “By Design”, the basis of UK’s urban design policy for many years.

Massive Small is a new campaign to establish an online compendium of project knowledge and references, and it is raising funding via Kickstarter. You can donate here.
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