Tag Archives: England

Point-Counterpoint #2: Wichelstowe

This is the second in a series about planning observations of the town of Swindon.  Native daughter/My Friend Lauren spent a day looking at the city through a planner’s eyes with me, and then wrote about her impressions of The Triangle, an affordable housing scheme in a kind of a rough neighbourhood.  From there the pendulum swung, and we went to visit Wichelstowe, a new town on the periphery of Swindon.  Wichelstowe will ultimately comprise 4000 housing units, ranging from affordable flats to six bed houses.  Lauren wanted to show it to me because its built on a floodplain, and because its a really large-scale development (obviously) that has really changed the edge of the town. As with The Triangle, Lauren and I disagreed about Wichelstowe.  Not all of it, but some fairly fundamental stuff.

First: my perspective. I think Lauren and I agree that, on balance, Wichelstowe doesn’t have that much to recommend it.  Neither of us are going to be investing in it anytime soon.  But our opinion is clearly that of the minority, since we spoke to a couple sales officials and they said that most units had already sold – so other people are clearly taken with the place. While Lauren and I disagreed about the architectural merits of the building facades, I think we agreed that it seemed like a bleak and depressing place to live.  There is a huge about of space given over to tarmac and very little space given over to anything green (at least relative to the size).  There’s no children’s play parks or sports fields or open space interwoven into the development, although the constructed wetland (presumably constructed to mitigate the destruction of the floodplain) is very nice; we saw a bunch of ducks and a couple herons, which says to me that it is fulfilling its purpose in shoring up ecological diversity. Lauren and I also agreed about the only commerce we saw – a pub on the edge of the development where we had lunch.  It felt like a restaurant franchise called “The British Pub” accessed from exit 67 on the Pennsylvania turnpike.  There was a sign outside encouraging women to send their husbands to the “husband creche” (to watch sports on the weekend).  Everything that wasn’t offensive was bland.

Sidenote: I am The Hotness.

The houses at Wichelstowe were not of high design quality; they were a pastiche of neo-Victorian crap designed to look cutesy and appeal to the lowest common denominator.  The fact that I was impressed by them suggests that I’m more stuck in the development patterns of the US than I realised. But I was going to speak in defense of Wichelstowe and let Lauren trash it, so I’ll get on with it.  The thing that I liked about Wichelstowe is that the architecture was so much better than The Triangle, and so much better than it could have been.  And while many of the developers in cahoots on this development have done a lot of horrible things to the English landscape, you can see that they at least ticked a few boxes when they designed Wichelstowe.  For example, the houses are all different bricks, and have different facade detailing.  Affordable housing is worked in through the development and not obvious from the outside. There is a mix of sizes, widths, heights and window placement. And its dense! There is really a lot of housing crammed into a pretty small area (in part because there’s no commerce or industry or office space, but still).  So at least all this offensiveness is occupying a relatively small footprint, and people will drive less than they would in a more suburban settlement.

Each individual house is a pretty standard British style, and all the houses look….new, but not in a good way.  But I can see a world in which the development ages well.  When the bricks get a little stained and weathered, and the trees have grown in and maybe (fingers crossed!) someone’s installed some playground equipment somewhere, I can see how Wichelstowe could be a nice place to live. Minus the “British Pub” and its giant car park. And now its counterpoint time! My friend Lauren says:

In my last post I mentioned that sweet nostalgia I have for my home town. It’s where I did my growing up. And it’s where I still come with my thoughts and ideas and I realise that I am still growing up. You’ll see; here’s a mini-existential crisis for your enjoyment or embarrassment:

I spent a lot of my toddler-time tiddling about with my grampy. He would hold my hand on our adventures in the woods, down alleys and along the railway track. Today, we’re on the railway track. The sunshine is glistening on the rain-wet leaves, birdies are tweeting, that little stream is crying out
for me to jump in. We go exploring up the embankment, ‘come on Lauren, have look at this!’ and grampy helps me up the slip-slippy slope through the bushes. There’s a fence, and on the other side is open countryside; and in the nearest field, a donkey.

‘Hey, donkey, why’re you called Eeyore?’

‘I dunno, Heorways calls me that. ‘

Right. You can see where this is going. But I’ll spell it out anyway.

Wichelstowe was built on Eeyore’s field. Now that is the emotional base for all my reasoning, but there are plenty of rational reasons to hate Wichelstowe too. There’s the insultingly naff design, the sheer density of the place, the legally-obliged buses that run empty. And the fact that it’s built in the catchment of the river Ray flood plain. There’s also the ethos behind it, which Franny and I glimpsed when we posed as lesbian-potential-house-buyers …

‘Wow, the development is really coming along, how many have you sold now?’

‘Oh nearly all of them. We’ve made so much money here, I just don’t understand why there’s so much restriction on building on land like this; it’s a goldmine for everyone!’ [blog editor sidenote: that’s a pretty ungenerous paraphrase]

‘uh huh. So how many are social housing?’

‘Don’t you worry about ‘horrible housing’, there’s none of them in this area. It’s allocated per development and one of the other companies took on the quota so we’re all owner-occupied.’ [blog editor sidenote: that’s a direct quote]

I hate it because I’m a ponce. Because I don’t live in a world where I think about profit or the income-source of my neighbours. Because I have an aversion to schemes like this: where the benefit to the stake-holders is dubious, and the motivation of the developer is purely bottom-line. Now, I can see that we need housing; yes, the developers are meeting a real need, but they’re hashing it up. These people really do live in risk of flood: the wetland area we saw had already flooded, and
one of the houses facing it had a ‘baby boy’ banner over the door. How old will he be when the water reaches his door?

I hate Wichelstowe because those houses represent something else to me, something malevolent that I can’t quite put my finger on. When the plans for Wichelstowe were announced, I grew up a little bit. I learnt that ‘donkeys’ years’ isn’t actually forever. All that is solid melts away…

Final blog editor note: Lauren did some research and found a Swindon planning doc about the site.  For more info, click here.

 

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I’d Work There: Urban Splash

I was cruising the annual Housing Design Awards website recently, where they have beautiful high-def videos of the recent nominees.  I was so impressed that I went through all the archives, and I was amazed by how many of the winning entries were in Manchester, and in the North in general.  The Accordia housing development in Cambridge won a Stirling Prize a few years ago, and as far as I can tell, no one in Cambridge has stopped talking about it since, but in Manchester they’ve been racking them up for years. I’m hopefully taking a tour of the Accordia development this week, and I’m pretty excited about it, but that’s one in a sea of distinctly average housing developments around Cambridge (it is also worth noting that the CBG is one of the only cities in the UK not officially in recession, and there are at least 4 major, prize-free real estate projects underway at the moment, plus a huge volume of smaller-scale development).   Anyway.  I kept noticing all these amazing projects, particularly in Manchester, and I was particularly excited to realise that Urban Splash developed Chimney Pot Park, a project I’d salivated over from the states.  Finally, I realised that the common thread is that most of the projects I liked were the work of a single developer, Urban Splash.  In the intervening weeks, I’ve developed a massive crush on this company: I think all their work is amazing, and I’ve been monitoring their website for jobs even though their offices are all in places I can’t possibly commute to.  You can see a full gallery of their work here, but I’ve included some highlights below.

 

I have to say, I was a little disappointed to realise that many of their projects were former industrial buildings.  I mean, I find a loft space as sexy as the next girl, but lofts have high ceilings and big windows – its kind of low-hanging fruit.  Chimney Pot Park was a neighborhood of derelict tenement terrace houses before it was built, with a whole bunch of attendant challenges.  Terrace houses often have low ceilings, cramped rooms, and a constrained footprint.  Furthermore, terraces compose a third of the UK’s housing supply, and Chimney Pot Park provided a complete re-imagining of this incredibly common vernacular.  I think its a revolutionary project.

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So what’s your job, exactly?

A future development site and the site of a Shape East design review

I have a master’s in urban planning from an American university, but relocated to the UK a few months after graduating. The planning system is very different here, so it was a challenge trying to find a niche. Ultimately, I ended up at Shape East, the centre for the built environment in the east of England.  I started working for Shape East as their Design Support Manager in February, a job with a description that continues to evolve as I learn to think more and more expansively about what Design Support can entail.

“Design support” is broken down into two broad categories – design support and design review.  Design review is a particular process of peer review, wherein we provide a panel of built environment professionals (architects, planners, engineers, landscape architects) to offer their commentary on a scheme that is about to be submitted for planning permission.  Usually, the planners at the relevant office will suggest to the architects or developer that some peer review would be beneficial, or a controversial project will undertake it voluntarily with the understanding that it will help quell opposition. Design review is a formal meeting with a particular protocol, and Shape East is part of a national network of design review providers, each with their own discrete reservoir of panel members.  Many of the architects on the panel are Kind of a Big Deal; others have a particular specialty.  The idea of design review is that a higher level of scrutiny will result in a higher degree of design quality, a premise I believe in.  My role is to organise all the design review meetings, take notes, and then summarise the recommendations for the local authority and the design team – the finished product is a letter, usually about 1000 words long, that is an official record of the 2-ish hour meeting (including a site visit) and the suggestions made by the panel of architects Shape East provides.

Design support is less specific.  It can happen at any time during a project’s development, up to the point where it receives planning permission.  Recently, we held a meeting with some important people in a small seaside town to help them develop a brief for a new public square.  We also helped a design firm work with a local town council to redesign the facade of an economic regeneration project.

The best part of my job is that I’m a believer in the value of our product.  Design review isn’t always helpful, but in many cases it makes a huge difference in the finished product and almost always results in positive changes to the design.  And design support is even more important, because it typically involves getting people outside the design and planning community involved in the process.

Design support, which typically focuses on a single development, is one half of what Shape does. The other half is more general education – we offer walking tours, public lectures, and other resources (many of them web-based) to help people learn about architecture and design.  Historically, Shape had done lots of outreach in schools and with young people, and at present we’re collaborating with Kettle’s Yard, a local art gallery, on outreach related to the construction of a new gallery space.

To my mind, the opportunity to get constructive criticism is one of the few pros of a planning system that is painfully vague and subject to personal opinion.  The UK is fairly unique, I think, in having providing so many opportunities for designers to get input from a “critical friend,” often from big-name design professionals and, at the very least, from designers that have been vetted and selected for their suitability for the project.  At Shape, about one in four applicants to the panel were ultimately chosen, and the competition for the position of chair and vice chair was stiffer.  My job is to try to convince people to avail themselves of this expertise.

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English Planning Pilgrimages

A recent Atlantic Cities article claimed that “Model-village-building was a favorite pastime of 19th-century tycoons,” a claim backed by the existence of towns like Bournville, New Earswick and others. Certainly, this country is full of planning pilgrimages waiting to happen.  Below is a quick run-down, listed roughly by their accessibility from Cambridge.

1. Letchworth:
Letchworth was one of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities, was founded in 1903 outside London. It’s on the same rail line as Cambridge and costs 8 pounds and about 30 minutes to get there.  It is the very top of my pilgrimage list; Welwyn, a follow-up city, is also on the list.

2. Milton Keynes:
Built in the late 60s and early 70s, it was revolutionary for its time and everybody hates it.  I have not heard a single positive thing about Milton Keynes, ever.  They do have a good climbing wall and, apparently, have an indoor ski resort.  They must be really desperate.  I went to the climbing wall last week, but its in an industrial estate on the edge of town, so it doesn’t count.

3. Bournville:
Now incorporated into the city of Birmingham, it’s a three hour train ride from Cambridge.  I want to go to there.

4. Bath:
On the list of every self-respecting Jane Austen fan anyway, but fairly far away.

5. Oxford:
Actually pretty easy to get to, but not especially important from a planning perspective.  But so pretty!…a lot like Cambridge, actually.

What did I miss?

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