When many out there in the social media piazzas are questioning the relevance of ice bucket vanity gone viral, we had our very own cold shower when interviewing Pete Halsall, CEO of Good Homes Alliance on multiculturalism, UK planning and the moral obligation of the next generation.
G4C mission is to push the boundaries of industry innovation and implement the change agenda. That’s what we do. But as we talked with Pete we began to realise how much more our generation could change. His points were solid. First, it is part of human nature to question the status quo and try to impose new visions of reality. Second, a good home is a fundamental building block of a healthy society. Third, don’t ask the current leaders, show them. Although G4C just started working on housing, following the roundtable at RICS last month, we did feel the blow of Pete’s refreshing pragmatism. Luckily our coffee and tea arrived allowing us to breathe and structure some sort of dialectic response. After another series of clumsy pseudo ideological arguments, we just gave up, set back and listened.
One of the main issues with development in the UK is the use of the wrong tools. The planning system is somehow engineered to prevent a cooperative creation of value whilst providing homes to people. Local authorities seem on the back foot, waiting to react against the forces of the market. In the attempt to provide an equal restriction of private benefit across the country, development legislation keeps firing out policy after policy with a growing risk of slowing down housing delivery due to the inherited intricacies of contradicting rules. Pete’s proposal left us a bit perplexed: let it happen. Immediately we objected that removing the policing role of planning could result in an uncontrolled overdevelopment but we saw the point when the results of the current policing attitude was highlighted.
In other times or other places, people would do what was necessary according to imminent needs of their generation. Romans built forts that have been then demolished to improve the road network and farmers built their homes and villages in the countryside because that was where they worked. The complexity of current planning regulation – along with the shrinking in our public life sphere I would add – had made it almost impossible for local residents to be part of the design process. Developers go recklessly big, as they know that somewhere along the way it will be scaled down. Planners have limited creative input due to the body of legislation they have to refer to and the local residents have no time to develop any emotional appreciation or productive contribution for the future of their neighbourhood.
We found it a bit difficult to grasp initially but (hours after our meeting with Pete) the analogy with shared traffic surfaces helped us. To those of you walking down Exhibition Road in London the example will be more clear although shared surfaces are being implemented in many places across the UK. The idea is simple and it works. Traditionally, road design would identify space for cars and another space for pedestrians. As soon as the two groups are identified as different, they feel free to act in a selfish way within their space, ignoring the other group, within the boundaries of their own space. The limit of this scheme is that flows are not rigid and both cars and pedestrian may from time to time invade the neighbouring space. When that happen, since none of the group is aware of the other group’s needs, accidents are likely to happen. Shared surfaces work differently. Cars and people use the same space. Cars are more likely to slow down and likewise pedestrians will be more careful when crossing the street. A sense of mutual awareness of the other group’s needs is created.
Other great examples could be referred to in regards to self-balancing communities where old and new members need to negotiate the use of shared space. Pete mentioned camping. We remembered a study done of the intuitive algorithm behind the placement of beach towels (I know, quote needed). When fighting the resistance against new models, multiculturalism is a powerful tool to bring on the table examples of substantially different systems that work perfectly well. The Vietnamese (or Dutch in the 16th Century) land taxation model quoted by Pete was a perfect one. Only the width of the plot is used to calculate the amount of taxes. This generates a distinctively local character where a great degree of variation (in height and depth) is allowed on an otherwise very rigid and simple grid of consistent widths.
From Danish public housing to Japanese urban metabolism, through the continental example of 19th Century urban design until the most recent 3D printing and Open Source home design&build, we have a world of great examples to feed our imagination and test alternative models to the current housing market.
Londoners are being kicked out from the cool parts of town, the existing stock is running on stupidly high energy demand giving our and the next generation unbearable legacy of carbon footprint, demand is held hostage by a limited supply and quite a few empty or derelict properties and estates.
Pete might be right, maybe times they are a-changin.