The Blog

Reviving London's Housing Requires a Mass of Small Changes

London is awakening from a prolonged and surprising slumber over its renewal - and the role of its residents in shaping neighbourhoods we want to live in.

London is awakening from a prolonged and surprising slumber over its renewal - and the role of its residents in shaping neighbourhoods we want to live in.

This most cosmopolitan of cities has sleepwalked into narrow, 'top down', policy-making. City Hall defaults to developers with identikit buildings and outsourcers that impose local services by numbers. But our city is at last waking up - roused by outsiders - to embrace something far more potent: an intelligent mix of top down and bottom up approaches to homebuilding, neighbourhoods and reviving our streets. How so?

Big, 'top down' approaches to renewal such as Earl's Court in London are doomed as long-term solutions to housing and liveable communities. For sure, they represent streamlined approach to urban development but they create formulaic living spaces, a dearth of housing types and silent, wind-blown districts. This mindset is storing up problems of isolation and inadequate social ties for the near future, never mind the long term.

Blogs and newspaper columns are bursting with energy and ideas to solve London's housing crisis: build on public land; redevelop tired estates; build in our back gardens. But this ferment of ideas is no real surprise: only in the last few generations did our society cede responsibility for areas like housing to the centre and its 'command and control' policies. Before that, residents successfully built their homes by individual street, the plot of land or the single house. People met their own needs and created self-sustaining communities and they can do so again.

The rapid confinement of our councils to core areas such as highways and adult care is forcing local leaders to think beyond the outsourcing of construction or handing local services to big providers. Politicians must change their behaviours and find imaginative approaches to housebuilding, shaping communities or nurturing cohesive neighbourhoods.

Attractive and sustainable communities must involve all stakeholders: more daring political leaders, a free-thinking 'middle' of architects, developers and planners, and the 'bottom up' actions of empowered communities, so often discouraged in the past by outdated rules and red tape. All these interests, particularly those at the levers of power or decision-making in the planning system, need to work together, lift the system's shackles and agree a path for practical change.

Politicians favour piecemeal changes when they could make radical ones. The Coalition kick-started people's involvement in development, resulting in 100 Neighbourhood Forums with a say in planning matters. In London, the London's Popular Home initiative presented to the Mayor identified 1500 publicly-owned sites for building but has failed to deliver on the vision.

Progress of sorts, you many say, but it's a poverty of ambition alongside Paris, which crowdsources development ideas from its citizens and is involving all local stakeholders in the La Corneuve district's renewal. And look at how Brussels, Berlin and Hamburg have allowed whole districts of self-build homes. Their councils allocate land for smaller developers and 'Grand Designers' to deliver housing blocks that support the communities that grow in them - in ways that identikit glass blocks never do. The UK's planning system is famously discretionary but its ties should be loosened and processes simplified to encourage greater community say in neighbourhood design and facilities.

The middle ground of professionals is belatedly showing ambition. Cash-strapped London councils and residents are working together to redefine and co-produce local services. Social enterprises such as Spacehive, inspired by the US technology industry, act as brokers between councils and communities, funding residents' events, repairs and renewal of green spaces.

But renewing London's neighbourhoods will be achieved by fostering local pride and allowing people the freedom to act - like the residents of Bengaluru in India, who cleared their streets by night in the famed 'Ugly Indian' project and the Dallas dog park project that revived a whole neighbourhood - as much as crowdfunding new types of services.

Business and academia also have the connections to focus creativity and resources to rethink our cities. Westminster University has just launched its fifth annual design competition with India's Architecture Students Association to transform disused public spaces across India's cities. Imagine how London's universities could combine to inspire students and local communities to make small changes at scale across in London.

London is only now awakening from its sleepwalk into narrow policy-making, showpiece buildings and lack of community. This most receptive of cities to outside influences is finally accepting that the best approaches for regenerating communities are being developed and proven in other great cities.

To successfully renew itself, our capital must build its future through millions of small changes at top, middle and ground-up levels, rather than so often relying on the soulless glass blocks of another developer's masterplan.