Why Remaking the Street Is Essential in Post-Brexit World

27/07/2016 12:56

(Re/Making the Street at The Building Centre. Photo Juliana Vasquez)

Exhibition highlights the ways in which street design are essential to better buildings, cities and communities

The Re/Making the Street exhibition currently on show at The Building Centre, London explores the very latest in thinking about how to deliver low-cost, high quality, plentiful housing in limited urban space that doesn't become the sink-estate of the future. And at the heart of this is an idea of the street.

Those on the frontline of providing desperately needed urban housing - housing associations, urban planners, regeneration experts, designers and architects -highlighted the necessity of 'community' and public 'participation' in successful design and development.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, the creation of a new street in Catalyst housing association's development around Portobello is a testament to involving the people who live in these communities surrounding new development and people who may live there.

The previous coalition government's 'nudge unit' (the Behavioural Insight Team) was inspired by the work of US academics Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler who among other things believe that architecture and the design of public spaces ("choice architecture") can make a profound difference to how we feel and how we choose to behave towards each other.

(Model of Bonchurch Street Project. Photo Agnese Sanveto)

It's not news to architects, urban planners or to the general public who may not be familiar with theories of design or the beneficial use of materials, but intuitively appreciate good design and understand the benefit and pleasures of urban trees, parks and garden spaces - spaces that encourage face-to-face encounters and meetings, no doubt with a little bit of Pokemon Go!

Indeed one of the projects featured in the talks and exhibition is the spectacularly good-looking skyscraper forest in Milan - the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) architects Boeri Studio (Stefano Boeri, Gianandrea Barreca and Giovanni La Varra).

(Bosco Verticale from UniCredit Tower, Milan. Photographer Luca Nebuloni)

It's one of the 21st century alternatives to the mid-20th century anonymous concrete sprawls, which tarred the whole of modern architecture in the public imagination, which often failed due to lack of attention around future maintenance and its cost.

Indeed one of the speakers at a Building Centre event on high density housing without the vertigo remarked on whether the foliage would remain as good-looking in winter.

Actually some architects are going further back in time for contemporary reference points. Colin Tweedy, Chief Executive of The Built Environment Trust observed that while London needs to be densified,

"high-rise may not be the solution. Many post-war estate redevelopments disrupted the most efficient use of space by rupturing the street plan. Urban designers and planners are increasingly looking to the successful Victorian mid-rise developments which are among the more dense housing in London in terms of dwellings per hectare."

But at the heart is the value of 'the street', an idea that was sometimes forgotten by 20th century planners who provided enclosed, inward-looking, closed off spaces in the tower estates. Such spaces promote homogeneity, a lack of diversity.

In popular culture spaces such as Eastenders' Albert Square and its market offer the vision and appearance of a space that is open to chance meetings, many of the plotlines are driven by such accidental encounters offered by the street.

(Re/Making the Street at The Building Centre. Photo Juliana Vasquez)

Such was my own experience of a suburban street. On breaking my ankle I turned from the middle-aged man jogging up the road everyday like clockwork, to the man swinging on crutches creating many new encounters. I had my leg 'healed' by an elderly neighbor as she took pity on my hobbling (generally not available n the NHS) while another neighbour showed me round his newly refurbished house. My crutches became an opportunity for sociality.

This sociality of the street, was key to the success of the Bonchurch Street project. Tom Titherington, Executive Director of Business Development and Market Intelligence at Catalyst housing association reflected that it no only provided more homes, it produced diversity of housing - mixed tenure - and reconnected the former closed off estate back into,

"the street pattern of the surrounding neighborhood. It is a particular achievement to do this in a high value neighborhood with no loss of social housing and demonstrates the key role housing associations can play in providing more homes for London."

It connected the wealthy residents of the area with those living in social housing.

(Re/Making the Street at The Building Centre. Photo Agnese Santo)

It was a reminder that while we often think of community as similarity, community depends on diversity, and in being open to and connected to 'the stranger'. The urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote in her defining 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities of the value of the streets and pavements in addressing the then severe segregation and racial discrimination,

"The tolerance, the room for great differences among neighbors, differences - that often go far deeper than differences in colour - which are possible and normal in intensely urban life, but which are foreign to suburbs and pseudosuburbs, are possible and normal only when streets of great cities have built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together on civilized but essentially dignified and reserved terms. Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the change from which city's wealth of public life may grow."

Like Jane Jacobs, the issues addressed in Re/Making the Street are deeper than simply provided shelter and accommodation. In the aftermath of the referendum vote - with a nation deeply divided, and fear of the 'other' bubbles away - architects, urban planners and housing associations can help provide both community, and the encounter with strangers, that healthy societies need to survive.

Re/Making The Street.
The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London. WC1E 7BT
Free to visit.
For updates on events and news go to Re/Making the Street at The Building Centre