Housing Is Not A Single Issue!
Canvassing for the General Election takes you down byways never before visited, some so new they are not on the map. The extent of pattern-book-pretty new housing estates is a surprise to me, coming as I do from the rural expanses of north Carmarthenshire where planning permission for a new home is as rare as a heatwave at the North Pole (although with climate change that is no longer such an absurd notion!).
Architectural differences between house types on housing estates are matters of ornament rather than function, and it is the functional uniformity of housing estates which alarms me. Housing estates provide places to live and rarely any other amenity.
‘So what’? people may say. ‘That’s the whole purpose of a housing estate, you idiot.’ Yet housing estates are examples of the top-down imposed rules by which lives have to be lived. Yesterday I was on a new estate in the Cross Hands-Ammanford growth area, which is intended (by the powers-that-be) to serve the Swansea Bay City Region. The estate is in the suburban fringe between town and countryside, and was built on green fields. The architects have done as much as they can to provide visual interest, within the tight constraints of building a housing estate for profit.
Planners said this estate is ‘sustainable’, meaning that it is unlikely to flood and has not resulted in the obliteration of known habitats of rare wildlife or of historic remains. It is near schools and a main road. What’s not to like? The houses look comfortable, and the extent of hard paving shows they are designed for the car age, a little bit of Los Angeles glamour transported to West Wales.
That’s my worry. Housing estates are imposed on communities. They do not grow organically from communities. Indeed, planning regulations discriminate against bit-by-bit growth. Housing estates lack work spaces and public meeting places, both of which are essential if people are to feel part of a community. Work and home are physically separated, often by many miles. This separation does nothing at all to reduce carbon emissions from commuting.
Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, says:
“We are constantly being told simple-minded lies about order in cities, talked down to in effect, assured that duplication represents order. It is the easiest thing in the world to seize hold of a few forms, give them a regimented regularity, and try to palm this off in the name of order. However, simple regimented regularity and significant systems of functional order are seldom coincident in this world.
“To see complex systems of functional order as order, and not as chaos, takes understanding. The leaves dropping from the trees in autumn, the interior of an aeroplane engine, the entrails of a dissected rabbit, the city desk of a newspaper, all appear to be chaos if they are seen without comprehension. Once they are understood as systems of order, they actually look different.”
— The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1964 Pelican edition p.389 (with my emphasis in bold)
A housing estate is, usually, composed of a few house forms, placed in a regimented design – but the visual ‘order’ of the estate rarely facilitates the emergence of a living, functioning community.
In the more than half century since Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, planners’ and politicians’ quest for visual order has certainly not lessened. Part of the problem is the notion that ‘housing’ is a separate, ring-fenced concept, requiring separate, ring-fenced housing estates. Functioning communities are not ring-fenced, though, but porous, open to new ideas, mixing work, leisure and public engagement.
And that’s all too risky for the play-safe planners (and politicians).
PDR (who was out canvassing for Plaid Cymru)