Problems of Scale

So on Friday I went to hear my supervisor, Peter Hall, on a panel discussion with Hank Ditmar (of the Prince’s Foundation) and Will Alsop (famous architect/urban designer). The title for the discussion was “The Object, the City & the Region“, which didn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with the actual discussion since that centred on what makes a viable neighbourhood, especially in light of the current UK policy on eco-towns and the high prices of commodities.¬†One of the themes that emerged, at least for me, in all three of the talks and follow-up discussion is the problem of scale: New bedroom communities are designed in one go, usually by one developer, and usually around one vision of what should be offered.

Ealing, where Peter lives, and Belsize Park, where I used to live, are typical of older developments — although the buildings all bear more than a passing a similarity to one another, it is rare to find that a single developer built more than one street’s worth of housing. The result is that although there is an identifiable ‘look’ that was driven by the fashion of the times, the neighbourhoods all vary in subtle, but important ways. Moreover, the buildings have proven adaptable to a variety of uses: ours has been subdivided into surprisingly large two-bedroom (or in the case of the young people living above us, three-bedroom) flats, while others have been turned into two x two-story flats, or kept in the hands of a single (wealthy) family. The result of all of this is a patchwork of densities and offerings that create an astonishingly vibrant environment — 100 yards in from the high street it’s as quiet as any suburb, but on the main drag there’s a tapas restaurant, two or three Italian places, a French bistro, British modern, a wine shop, a video store, a cinema… the list goes on. And all of this is, of course, supported by mass-transit (bus and Tube).

The important scale-dependent aspect of this is that none of this was planned in a way that we would recognise as urban planning: a coherent, unified vision, or a master-architect specifying densities and features in advance. I firmly believe that no one developer could have put together this vision of Belsize Park — they certainly would never have imagined young (or young-ish in my case) economic migrants wanting to live in a subdivided building — and that what we’re seeing is a kind of parallel to the purported wisdom of crowds (actually, it’s probably more a question of complexity, which is what I’m planning to make the subject of my next post).

Another way to think of it is the analogy to ecosystems: when we get monocultures in an environment (which could be natural, or could just as easily be computational) then we put the entire system at risk from a single, cascading failure. Jane Jacobs made this point, quite compellingly to my mind, when she argued that a diversity of building stock (in terms of age, size, features, etc.) would encourage a range of economic activity and a range of inhabitants that would be more resistant to the problems of change. In urban economics there’s been a lot of attention devoted to the resilience of urbanisation economies relative to localisation economies (the evidence is somewhat mixed and seems to revolve around things like the nature of the industry, its product and industrial life-cycle, and a degree of path-dependency [i.e. history, for those of you not in planning]).

We seem to have hit this issue in the suburbs — they are effectively residential monocultures on a massive scale and they are difficult to adapt to other purposes (barring some tele-working and the possibility of converting the garage into a rental unit). Although I personally find suburbs unpleasant, I’m not against them as one option among many, I’m against them as the only option at all. I don’t think that it’s my right as a planner to tell people not to want something, but I do think that we have to make the alternatives attractive and ensure that the costs of the land/energy they consume are fully priced into the cost of buying a home.

But in the meantime, this got me thinking about how we could push forwards a diversity of responses. I get the impression that development tends to happen on two scales: enormous and site-specific. The latter usually happens in cities on ‘brownfield’ land, while the former is most common in edge-of-town locations. Completely site-specific developments are likely to be expensive because they are happening in built-up areas and have to be designed according to very specific criteria. There are no economies of scale. Suburbs are kind of the opposite: they are cheap because they have economies of scale but they involve the consumption of huge amounts of land (and will have high ongoing energy costs from travel).

Surely we can look for something in between? What about plots that are large enough to permit multiple residencies but too small for a slash-and-burn approach to construction where everything is built to the same floorplan and your main choice is whether you want the one with the door on the right or the door on the left? I saw some interesting (though not completely successful) attempts at this in Amsterdam on Java Island. This area is former dockland and was razed before construction of housing began. What seems to have happened is that the city hired six or seven architects who not only don’t appear to speak to each other, but actively hate each others’ guts and asked them each to design a house that would fit to the traditional footprint of Amsterdam housing (long and narrow). The result was six different buildings that could all be slotted into the same plan but which looked very different and responded to the needs of their users in different ways. So you get the flexibility and you get the economies of scale. As I said, I don’t think that it worked flawlessly but it worked a heck of a lot better than what you see on British housing estates.

So to wrap up:

  1. Let’s make plots smaller so that developers need to get more creative
  2. Let’s inhibit the process whereby the same developer builds an entire large-scale development (where edge-of-town development has to occur)
  3. Let’s inhibit the economies of scale that enable giganto-firms to hoover up all of the projects. We might then end up with more varied and locally-appropriate responses to housing demand. I don’t see any reason why this need be more expensive in the long run, especially if we properly price in energy and land costs of today’s massive developments.

That’s it for now…

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