We need to disrupt the very way we approach the design and development of our cities to rebuild public trust, writes Christine Murray
There are times when serving the industry and sparking conversation means sharing hard truths. That is why in the next edition of The Developer we highlight the industry’s negative contribution to air pollution, mental health, biodiversity and flood risk and what to do about it.
It’s why our Risk & Resilience conference on 8 November focusses on how to design more resilient places where people thrive.
And it’s also what led me to investigate the use of pesticides in our cities and public spaces, which uncovered that 98% of councils use weedkillers containing glyphosate, applying it to housing estates, playgrounds, pavements and public spaces.
That story, nominated for Scoop of the Year at the IBP awards, fundamentally questions our design approach to public space. If we need to spray our urban realm with a suspected carcinogen for maintenance, we are doing something wrong.
When the story broke online it was illustrated with the spraying of tree pits on the King’s Crescent Estate. Hackney’s award-winning mixed-tenure housing development designed by Karakusevic Carson gets a lot of things right, but not this.
We need to rethink the Modernist aesthetic that has captured our imagination for so long
The fact that Milton Keynes is the biggest user of glyphosate herbicide is proof positive that we need to rethink the Modernist aesthetic that has captured our imagination for so long. The design of public space is neither rational, nor functional, if it requires the widespread use of poison to maintain it. Indeed, these barren townscapes are a failure – wasting water and failing to support the health of humans, not to mention animals, birds and bugs. No wonder the only thriving urban species are cockroaches, rats and pigeons.
And yet, architects still proudly describe themselves as Modernists, churning out £123bn-worth of masterplans across the UK – a plague of concrete-scapes with LED-lit fountains, shared-surface streets and spongy playgrounds, with sculptures perched on patches of plastic grass. Pesticides torture rebel weeds pushing through the cracks as nature fights back. Meanwhile rainwater runs off into Victorian fatberg-ridden sewers without replenishing precious aquifers, or washes pollution into streams and reservoirs of drinking water.
Windswept plazas are just one example of how we have been so focused on adding value to real estate that we’ve, paradoxically, left land poorer, stripping this shared asset. If scientists have woken up to the power of the human microbiome, we are still eradicating the good bacteria of our cities. The irony is that many of these beautification projects are sculpted by professionals who commute into town from greener pastures, for some reason believing city dwellers deserve the plastic-covered sofa equivalent to the countryside – the wipe-clean city.
For too long, redevelopment has been a colonial act... extracting maximum value from the land
What’s wrong with a little mud? How did we move so far away from the English landscape garden, with its wabi-sabi elegance, wafting willow trees and Monet-ready ponds? There is some evidence the tide is turning, not led by any design trend (although Piet Oudolf’s High Line has proved influential), but by necessity: new planning hurdles are pushing biodiversity net gain and sustainable urban drainage to mitigate the heat island effect, wildlife loss and rising flood and drought risk.
As Dirk van Peijpe says in this edition, “we need to move from a drainage city to a sponge city” and fundamentally rethink our relationship to the elements – stop designing out nature, and design with it. The work of professionals such as Kevin Barton at Robert Bray Associates, are leading the way in the UK towards hairier, more resilient, wild-yet-urban places.
But before you outsource this all to your landscape architect, read this: real estate needs a deeper mindset shift. As placemakers, we need to disrupt the very way we approach the design and development of our cities.
For too long, redevelopment has been a colonial act. We disperse citizens through compulsory purchase or decanting, making false promises with unrealistic CGIs. We speak of places being “regenerated” as though they are degenerate, adopting the language of slum clearance and ‘savages’. We approach design and feasibility studies based on extracting maximum value from the land, squeezing in the most flats.
We’ve been so focused on adding value to real estate that we’ve left the land poorer, stripping our shared asset
We claim to be creating communities even as we cleave them apart into poor cores and segregated playgrounds. Finally, we market the property to new settlers: inviting gentrifiers to colonise the neighbourhood.
The approach has, in many cases, won investment and turned a profit, yet the trustworthiness and reputation of developers among the public has fallen to new and profound lows. As for making a positive social impact, even the mammoth east London project for a lasting Olympic legacy has, on the whole, failed to improve the lot of its citizens. The London Assembly 2017 report, Relighting the Torch: Securing the Olympic Legacy, found that after construction jobs faded away, the gap in the median earnings for full-time workers living in the area actually worsened from 2009 levels, as well as rates of childhood obesity, adult activity levels and overcrowding.
Now, government data on the Indices of Deprivation 2019 released in September reveals, while overall London is less deprived than in 2015, “barriers to housing and services” – which measures homelessness, housing affordability, distance to essential services and overcrowding – is worse. And nearly all of Olympic-borough Newham falls into the most deprived 5% in England. A further black mark on this industry: housing deprivation is the only one of all seven indices that has declined.
The trustworthiness and reputation of developers among the public has fallen to new and profound lows
Depressing facts, but don’t give up now. Here lies opportunity: UK cities are still growing and Manchester and Liverpool are well placed to learn from London’s failures. Modernist infrastructure is undergoing renewal and we have the imperative to do things differently. The market is also moving at a pace where we can take time to re-educate ourselves and think before we act.
We must abandon the colonial language of so-called regeneration, reject failed Modernist doctrines and instead focus on enabling, listening, sharing and supporting our citizens – moving from extraction to provision. We have to stop the ‘engagement’ of communities in battle, and build with them, and learn from the hopeful stories of places such as Marmalade Lane.
As we reimagine the future city, we must develop a radical new urban aesthetic supported by the new climate planning imperatives to de-pave and re-wild. Citizens have already embraced weeds as wildflowers. What next? What are your blockers? Let’s move them out of the way, together.
The Developer has been shortlisted in the IBP awards for Editorial Brand of the Year, Scoop of the Year and Event of the Year for Festival of Place
The next edition of The Developer is out soon – order your copy here