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Building Houses – Building Communities

Building Houses – Building Communities[1]

Housing is a complex subject. It can‘t be reduced to ‘housebuilding’. Housing development determines ‘how we live’; how our home lives relate to everything else in our work, rest and play; how new homes blend with and support adjoining bits of town; and the way that our living environments contribute to the sustainable functioning of the business and social resources that we look to when we leave the privacy of our homes. ‘Housing’ is a very rich package of social provision.

Rightly adding that developments should embrace new technologies, bring in renewable energies, sustainable drainage systems, central heat and power, insulation, bio-diversity, often omits that most vital of ‘sustainabilities’ – sustainable communities.    

The Achievements of Housebuilding

The decades before and after World War 2 teach us many lessons of housebuilding. In the days of Tory aristocrat, Harold MacMillan, housing production was achieved at a rate of 300 and 400 thousand homes per annum. Vast new estates were built, new systems and new architecture called in to play, swathes of town, city and countryside cleared, levelled and remodelled for council estates, tower blocks and new towns 

These were great achievements. New homes, embraced by tenants with genuine awe, provided warm and watertight roofs over the heads of kitchens with hot and cold running water, inside toilets, baths, two and three bedrooms, in neighbourhoods with schools and other community resources – it was all good stuff. Households with low incomes rightly welcomed these products of modernism albeit at the cost of their old communities, slum cleared for commerce and jobs, mostly for retail. In return, the early estates sought to replace the rich social provision that former inner city neighbourhoods provided – jobs, resources, shops, support systems, welfare halls, and much more. All had been lost for the best of motives – public health and overcrowding. Yet history has demonstrated that, in the long run, these achievements have not been sustainable.

The new estates had to replace a rich package. Families on low incomes were relocated to environments far from the basic daily needs that had hitherto been available virtually on their doorstep. To compensate, we built schools, small shopping centres, surgeries, community centres. Many of these are now closed.

Originally modelled on ‘garden city’ principles – here in Swansea, Townhill was laid out by Raymond Unwin, and launched with fine model homes in the Arts and Crafts style, council estates became unmanageable behemoths, often declining into decay, crime, domestic violence and drugs, despite valiant efforts of many stable and appreciative households. Single tenure, low income, socially stratified and low density – not by the total number of residents or homes spread over an estate – some of these estates can be measured in tens of thousands, but by the number of people per hectare, the number of people within reasonable walking distance of their daily resources, from a pint of milk to public transport and access to the jobs market. Developments were, and largely still are, low density and not sustainable.

High rise of the 1950s was similar. The post-Corbusian, international style that brought us tower blocks, again providing very welcome warm modern flats, heralded by their prophets as total living environments, “streets in the sky”[2], have also proved to be unsustainable, surrounded by open space, often characterised by ‘No Ball Games’ notices, lifts that didn’t work and shuttered shops, latterly run only by immigrant families that ‘charge too much’ but stay open all hours to generate sufficient turnover to survive. Everything was and is unsustainable.

The missing ingredient – people on streets!

Rarely did these estates build anything like the town that spawned them, neither the out-of-town estates nor the inner city tower blocks. They were mostly self-contained, zoned residential areas, paying little heed to their older more traditional neighbouring districts and doing virtually nothing for the city centres left behind. Despite the best of intentions, they were left to sort themselves out. Discounted ‘right to buy’ finished them off, leaving no-one with responsibility for diagnosis and remedy for their condition.

 One vital legacy of this peculiarly, if not exclusively, British phenomenon is that the concept of ‘residential density’ became historically tainted. Motives for the ‘garden city’ created the myth of a romantic suburban idyll that still dominates the private housing market. Even the developers’ late conversion to higher densities has resulted in related characteristics of exclusivity – gated developments, inward facing blocks and, still, single-use residential zoning, mitigated only by weak planning conditions (Section 106) insisting on the odd shop (sic) or play area. We look to Europe for encouragement, to the cities most of us love to visit – Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, in fact almost any European city or to wonderful Greenwich Village and other districts of Manhattan, where ‘good town’ generates enthusiasm, not the high rise commercial towers that falsely dominate our perceptions of New York.

In these cities, four, five and six storey houses and apartments, often with commercial activity in ground floors and semi-basements, demand, through their dense populations and supportive spatial structure[3], vitality, diversity, and all sorts of social resourcing. The best of new developments have learned and either reinforce established town or make a real effort to build new mixed-use districts – Heinrich Böll in Berlin, Kirchsteigfeld in Potsdam, and Freiberg, all in Germany. There are lots of examples.

Here in Swansea, our best effort by far has been the Marina. Three, four, five and six storey lifted homes and walk-ups have transformed the former Copperopolis docks and railway sidings to make Swansea’s fine bay [well, what shall we say?] at least visible, approachable; it is such an under-achieving asset. The Marina’s weakness is its single in-and-out access and a real failure to build in diverse uses. Businesses tend to have a short life. The most stable has been the eponymous Pump House, now a pub and restaurant, located by a neglected and  lost connecting swing bridge at the heart of the former docks, by fine Georgian residential remnants and the Captain Cat pedestrian bridge that is the main pedestrian and cycle link to the city from the newbuild.

Nearby, The Vetch, former home of the city football team, and prime candidate for good solid inner city housing development, is being touted for low-rise, low density terraces more influenced by the private sector suburban idyll than its neighbouring Marina, let alone good European town, or its own history.

The land asset.

To generate housing, affordable housing, and good town in these difficult times of austerity, the greatest asset we have is land, often being sold off, in weak negotiations with housing developers, to make a bob-or-two for the strapped coffers of Local Authorities. This short-sighted policy omits to reflect on the miserable financial legacy of past out-of-town private sector developments, let alone our own experience with council estates. The cost of building and maintaining schools, health centres and, increasingly, road systems, all falls on the public purse. Servicing by public transport is invariably unviable. What payback do we get for this ‘investment’?

Compare that with inner city housing, close to existing social and commercial resources, with a footfall market that encourages the local economy, local businesses and entices ‘nationals’ towards vibrant 24-hour, mixed use city streets. The social and economic payback for city is overwhelming in comparison.

For that reason, we can afford to offer cheap or even free land deals to developers willing to meet our criteria for good town. Private sector bullies that threaten local authorities not to develop because our meagre ‘Section 106’ demands for affordable housing are supposedly not commercially acceptable, can be happily shown the door. There will be plenty takers for cheap land deals. Best placed for quick results, for house-building now, until we get public sector finance re-established, are the Registered Social Landlords. There may even be some in the private sector happy to talk. We just have to get our story right.

Homes that make good town; front doors and windows onto peopled streets, directly connected into the existing street network, feeding the main streets; integrated opportunities for small businesses in good locations; facilities for children and young people – out front, part of the community. (Check out the provision of parks and playspaces in high density Manhattan!). Older folks too. Safe streets, primarily for people.

Enhance that list yourselves – it is short and undemanding. The payback may be a bit longer term, not much, but it is perpetually rewarding if we get it right. Just look at these cities you love.

In the package, our towns and urban centres need homes for older people, close to a range of social resources that offer a good degree of independence. Yes, provision should continue for young singles, starters, etc but, most of all, think families. Think of the concentration of resources that they will demand of our urban centres. Like in European cities. Or Manhattan. It is just good business. And we are ready for it now, before the short-termists sell off the last of the family silver.


Gordon Gibson, July 2014


[1] This article is a product of a contribution I made to a Welsh Labour Grassroots discussion on Housing, led by Swansea Councillor, Bob Clay, in July 2014  

[2] A term attributed to English architects Patrick and Alison Smithson in the 1960s for their tower block theories and work in London.

[3] Usually, a well inter-connected, ground level street grid.

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