What makes a good place–and how do we get one?

Evidence collected from the UK suggests that top of the list of what is important to people is ‘neighbourhood’ (not the same as community, which scores much lower). Neighbourhood includes but is not confined, to good schools, open spaces, safe environment etc.

Where these neighbourhoods have been created they have higher total values per ha than directly comparable standard developments in the same locations. This ‘neighbourhood premium’ more than justifies any additional development expenditure incurred. It is important to note though that the value measured is the total development value, not that of the square footage of an individual house, which is the more often used industry standard. This means that the best value arises out of the best use made of a whole piece of land, not just producing a housing unit for minimal cost to the developer and maximum price to the consumer.

The value of design goes well beyond the architecture of individual houses. Studies undertaken by Savills and Space Syntax on the layout of streets in a London Borough and the value of residential properties found a direct correlation between ease of movement (connectivity and permeability) and property values. Equally they showed that placing an unconnected neighbourhood centre in the middle of a site, negatively affects the value of properties. The empirical evidence therefore confirms what urban designers have been saying for a long time: the design of streets and neighbourhoods can be more important to value than the design of individual buildings.

What matters is the whole content of a place, what might be called the ‘neighbourhood commercial uses’. These are fine grained and include, for example, the corner shop, the florist, the key-cutter, dry-cleaner, jobbing builder, funeral parlour, pub, café, local solicitor – all the things that people use in their domestic lives ad like to be able to walk to. … In spite of the evidence that exists, few new developments replicate the messiness and complexity of older places that are known and loved – and have a high value.

Studies have found that it is almost always the landowner or the end owner-occupier that benefits from value premia achieved through sustainable urbanism.

…London shows us, on a very grand scale, that good placemaking is never solely about the physical form but about ongoing life in that place. What designers have to ensure is that the built form is flexible, adaptable and conducive to that life.

Yolande Barnes

Director of Residential Research, Savills, written for publication by Sebastian Loew

Urban Design, Spring 2013, pp 3-5

These extracts from a professional journal go some way to explain why the standard of so much residential development is so poor and in particular why developers are so willing to ignore obvious external problems like congestion, lack of facilities. The housing market is organised around a model of buy cheap, sell dear, move on– there is nothing in it for them to do otherwise.

Only where landowners continue to have an interest – as with the Prince of Wales and Poundbury, or Welwyn and Letchworth Garden Cities, where a development trust oversaw the development  – does the picture change.


One Hot Summer Night

We can see this in action in Devizes. The owners of the large plots of land being put forward for development along London Road have no long term interest in the town. It makes no difference to them if once completed the traffic generated causes London Road to lock solid, or the local schools and medical facilities to be overloaded. Once that happens they will be somewhere else doing the same thing again. The system we operate under makes this perfectly rational behaviour.

Don’t however let anyone con you into thinking that this is the free market at work. It isn’t. The planning system constrains the amount of land available for development at any one time. The concentration on ‘strategic sites’ means that the sites that are developed will tend to be large and so a ‘winner takes all’ scenario develops. When a developer secures a site, not only do they reap the benefits, they also freeze out their competitors and create what is close to a local monopoly. Buyers have only 2 0r 3 developments to choose from. If we could raise this to 20 or 30, then we would see the possibility of real competition.

According to the Gazette and Herald (April 4th 2013) those working on the Devizes Neighbourhood Plan are trying to develop a strategy that does just this – focussing on sites of no more than 60 houses in various locations, rather than large new estates.  This may work, but if those smaller schemes don’t allow for all the other things people want to see in their neighbourhood, we will still have problems. Typically the development control team in the planning department will focus on things like bricks and roof tiles, parking and not on the wider neighbourhood. Quite frankly its easier, especially given the way in which, like all local government, they are pressured by endless targets.

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