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How is urban form shaping the future of our neighbourhoods?

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By Jonathan Tarbatt – 25th February 2022

The urban (and suburban) fabric comprises an interweaving of different elements in which our dwellings are situated – namely the block, the plot and the street. We cannot understand one without the others, nor what it means to live in the city (or suburb) without first understanding where our dwelling sits within this urban framework.

In the UK, urban extensions and new settlements are regarded as one of the most important contributors to supplying the levels of housing currently required to support burgeoning demand. The large scale of these mainly housing developments are such that they are designed at the level of the neighbourhood. Most are in fact predicated on the creation of one or more new neighbourhoods, each with their own basic facilities and services and access to a school.

The idea of the planned neighbourhood is a contested one and many developments of this scale in the UK are regarded as poorly designed. However, one can argue that in the light of the current pandemic, people value their local neighbourhoods more highly than ever before.

This means our neighbourhoods need to be made more sustainable, more resilient and more pleasant places to live.

The history of our neighbourhoods 

The concept of the neighbourhood has an influential yet chequered past. Clarence Perry’s influential 1929 neighbourhood diagram initiated a hotly contested debate over their physical design, planning, governance, social relevance and segregation that shows no sign of settling. 

The US Scholar, Emily Talen describes how “neighbourhoods should be genuinely relevant in our lives – not as casual descriptors of geographic location but as places that provide an essential context for everyday life.” Talen explains how they have traditionally functioned as the “platform for daily exchange”, yet industrial capitalism and the technological revolution have gradually undermined belief in their relevance. Some critics have focussed on the island-like form of the neighbourhood diagram, because this is seen to create ‘border vacuums’ that sever neighbourhoods from each other. 

In the UK, the New Towns building programme which followed WW2 relied heavily on the neighbourhood concept but utilised problematic urban forms such as the tower or slab block and back-to-front ‘Radburn’ type housing layouts that segregated vehicular and pedestrian movement, creating ambiguous spaces between buildings. 

Stepping forward into the 1990s, the so-called New Urbanists led by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk rediscovered Perry’s 1929 neighbourhood diagram and re-drew it according to their manifesto for walkable neighbourhoods. In doing so they replaced arterial streets with traffic-calmed boulevards, and reverted amorphous open spaces to traditional urban forms that could articulate spaces between buildings more distinctly.

Douglas Farr evolved the concept further in 2007, taking account of the emerging sustainable urbanism agenda and set about re-drawing Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s diagram to include greenways for stormwater attenuation, wildlife corridors and multipurpose ‘green infrastructure’.  

Farr retained some key features advocated by Duany, including the US predilection for gridded layouts with cross streets, of the pre-Radburn era. 

Fast forward to 21st century Britain, and we find that the scramble to meet housing demand still relies on core neighbourhood planning principles such as walkability and access to schools and local services. Ironically, and in contrast to the neighbourhood concepts of Duany and Plater-Zyberk or Farr, which imply very ‘urban’ environments, the peripheral nature of urban extensions in the UK, combined with a uniquely British approach to delivery that favours low density housing types, has created suburban environments that have more in common with the Garden Suburbs built during Perry’s own lifetime than those of the new Urbanists.

Whatever the validity of these critiques, the neighbourhood unit as a focus for housing provision will likely continue to exert its influence. This is because it offers so many appealing features: access to a school, local shops and services and children’s play within easy walking distance, without rejecting the inevitability of car use, and provision of these community features is necessary within large-scale urban extensions and new settlements. 

Towards an ‘urban form-based’ neighbourhood plan

It is now time to introduce a new neighbourhood concept, one that builds on Clarence Perry’s legacy via the New Urbanists of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Farr in the US, suggesting that the considered integration of urban form into their neighbourhood design might bring us closer to these ideals. 

By retaining the core principles of walkability and permeable block structures promoted by Duany Plater-Zyberk and the principles of sustainable drainage, habitat creation and green infrastructure added by Farr, we can reimagine the neighbourhood in a contemporary British context. 

This new neighbourhood adds a more varied urban structure and a wider range of block types which, in turn, supports a more varied range of building typologies and densities that has the potential to future-proof our new neighbourhoods for generations to come. 

The UK Government’s White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ supports approval for urban extensions and new settlements in areas designated for growth, but adds impetus to the promotion of SME house builders, Community Land Trusts, self-builders and the private rented sector (PRS), alongside volume house builders.  

The future of urban living 

There is an ongoing push to build more homes and more neighbourhoods in the UK, and against the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is timely to look more closely at how the lessons we have learned about urban form might be applied to their design.  

Against a critique of neighbourhood concepts, and on the basis of recent UK experience and policy initiatives, we can argue that better understanding of urban form can improve the quality and resilience of new neighbourhoods.  

Plans that incorporate a variety of block types within a carefully considered urban framework plan are needed to meet both market expectations and policy initiatives. Designing for variety can provide the levels of diversity and adaptability needed to raise the quality of new neighbourhoods, while also achieving the average densities needed to support the kinds of walkable neighbourhoods that many have come to value more highly during lockdown. 

Building on the work of others, here we have a further iteration of the neighbourhood concept that is more finely attuned to its urban form, while also more practically applicable to the UK context than its US antecedents. Above all, it is time believe that the idea of the neighbourhood is more relevant now than ever, and we have an opportunity as an industry to make a significant difference to its future form. 

You can hear more from Jonathan on urban design in his talk at Futurebuild 2022: Complete architecture comes in a sustainable package, on Tuesday 1 March, 2022. 

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