History Has an Economic Future; ARCHITECTURE & URBAN DESIGN

The Birmingham Post (England), May 11, 2017 | Go to article overview

History Has an Economic Future; ARCHITECTURE & URBAN DESIGN


Byline: Joe Holyoak

TTHE Birmingham Post last month led with a report of objections by the Victorian Society and Save Britain's Heritage to a large residential development proposal by Barratt Homes.

The objections were to the proposed demolition of two existing buildings on the site - the 1903 St Luke's Church on Bristol Street and the 1877 Highgate Centre on St Luke's Road.

As a member of the Victorian Society, I declare an interest in these objections.

Both organisations are concerned with architectural conservation, and their objections are primarily to the loss of attractive pieces of historic architecture.

Everyone understands these conservation arguments, although they may take different sides on what should be the outcome.

But there is another wider argument in favour of retaining old buildings in new development which has nothing to do with architectural quality.

It is an issue whose consequences we all experience on a daily basis.

It is an economic and social argument which, as events such as this Barratt development demonstrate, is little understood by decision-makers who should know better.

One of the main principles in current town planning and urban design practice is that of mixed uses.

An urban quarter which is sustainable, attractive and convenient to live in needs to have a variety of land uses close together.

Children must be able to walk to school, adults to walk to shops, doctors, library.

There must be workspaces for businesses, meeting places, cafes and restaurants and other facilities.

The simple economic fact is that many of these activities cannot afford to be in new buildings. New buildings are by definition expensive.

A neighbourhood made entirely of new buildings will be an impoverished neighbourhood. Old buildings are more affordable: they have paid off their development costs, and are cheaper to buy or rent.

Old buildings are essential for small businesses and new enterprises.

The great author and activist on urban planning, Jane Jacobs, summed it up succinctly in her famous 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities: "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings".

If a new development removes all the existing buildings on a site, and builds a uniformly single-use development - as Barratt is proposing with its 772 dwellings on Bristol Street - the new residents will be impoverished.

As a result, many will get into their cars and drive elsewhere to find what they need, adding to congestion and pollution. The neighbourhood will not be a genuine community, just a concentration of dormitory flats for commuters.

There are some intelligent developers who understand the economic and social need for diversity of use - Urban Splash, Argent, and Ian Harrabin's Complex Development Projects are among them.

But the volume housing developers, including Barratt, for all their rhetoric about placemaking and building communities, are essentially manufacturers of products, just like Vauxhall or Apple.

The big investors who financially back large housing developments are also responsible for the lack of diversity. …

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