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Future Cities Forum report: housing for a sustainable future

Above: housing panel at Future Cities Forum's 'Innovation Cities' at Here East on the Olympic Park - with CGI image of Hadley Property Group's Blackwall Yard development behind.

Future Cities Forum is releasing the report from the housing discussion panel that was part of our 'Innovation Cities' event at Here East.

Homes England's Assistant Director of Sustainability & Design, Sarah Greenwood, Matt Rimmer, Director, Hadley Property Group, Ellie Evans, Managing Partner, Volterra, Professor Yolande Barnes, The Bartlett Real Estate Institute, UCL, Gavin Miller, Director, Mica Architects and Deborah Heenan, CEO, Populo Living Group all took part.

They answered questions on how to 1) create sustainable places and best practice for doing so, 2) create better dialogues between housing companies and communities, 3) create long term stewardship of place and who is responsible and 4) densifying neighbourhoods to create much needed housing while making connected transport and cycle schemes work effectively.

Homes England's Sarah Greenwood began by describing her vision for sustainability in design:

'How do we create sustainability and design with meaningful action. What does sustainability mean? It obviously means different things to different people and this could be lots of areas of nature, climate resilience and good travel etc. We have lots of metrics and we are now working with local communities as well as across government departments for higher outcomes.

'At Homes England, we really want to create vibrant places to create prosperity and bring people together and we are concerned about stewardship. The policies on the latter haven't been quite right. My idea is that if you like a place you will look after it, if not people won't care. Communities also struggle with lots of different management companies, so that has to be looked at.

'My vision is for longevity. We have lots of short term targets, but if we divest all our resources into these we only get short-term solutions. We need to change the way we take decisions. It is a huge exercise and an enormous cultural shift. Yes, we need to look at priorities but also the long term.'

How important has it been for housing companies to work at their communities over communication? Populo Living Group's Deborah Heenan picked this question up:

'We have definitely felt that more honest conversations with our communities has been the way forward but often people are saying that it is too good to be true. Once the Olympics was finished, we had to ask ourselves about what was going on. There were 'posh boy' flats and only a small number of council homes being built and we don't want that. We wanted to do something different and a joint venture with the council.

'The development partner needs to make a profit and we need some 'posh boy' flats to subsidise developments. But we do need to build in a sustainable way because of floods in the future. We are having much better dialogues with our communities and asking them about their different needs. We need to create balanced communities, for different people and different ages. One family for instance is a perfect example. The grandparents are helping out with childcare so their daughter can go to work, otherwise she would be on the dole. So that's an example of community housing where families can live long term together, without young people feeling they have to move on.'

Populo is re-developing the Carpenters Estate, a 28-acre estate next to Stratford station and Westfield Stratford City. First built in the 1960s, it’s been the subject of several stalled attempts to redevelop it. Now, in partnership with Newham Council, Populo is leading the delivery of a programme to transform The Carpenters, to provide more of the high quality homes the area needs, it says:

'In a ballot held in late 2021, residents overwhelmingly backed a ground-breaking masterplan for the future of the Estate. The masterplan was co-produced by Populo and residents, and when complete will deliver:

  • over 2,000 modern homes, 50% of which will be genuinely affordable

  • 28,000 sqm of commercial space including a new building crafts college, cafes, restaurants, shops, workshop space, and a hotel

  • better connected streets, with a clear route to Stratford station and houses and maisonettes at the centre of the development with taller buildings towards the edge

  • The regeneration is intended to support inclusive growth in Newham by providing hundreds of local jobs and apprenticeships, investment in local businesses through local procurement and new inward investment to the borough throughout its 15-year span.

Like all our work, the homes will be built with high quality materials, designed to last a lifetime. Many of the existing homes on The Carpenters, 44% (314) will be retained, including two of the estate’s iconic towers. These homes will be refurbished to offer more space and the high standards of energy performance that Newham Council requires, as part of its response to the climate emergency.'

Stratford East as the new cultural district for the East End is growing fast and will need quality homes to be built for all sectors of the community. Image: CGI Stratford Waterfront - courtesy Allies & Morrison

Professor Yolande Barnes from University College London, spoke of the need not to just think the the bricks and mortar in housing but neighbourhoods where everyone can thrive:

'We talk about later living and many other silos that we put our housing into but within neighbourhoods there are layers and layers of stuff going on throughout the day at different times and we need to recognise that and build our community developments around it. We want neighbourhoods where all ages can thrive and we need to learn how to create real places that serve different types of people.

'I was an adviser to the Building Beautiful Commission and I have to say that over the centuries human beings are very good at creating beautiful environments, when you think of Pompeii or Leicester. Human beings are also good at facilitating movement in place. It is about how we live in places together. Hyper-mix and stewardship is very important and how we manage places over different times of day.

'We have to change our way of thinking, not that an institution that will do it all for us - top down - but how we can make sustainable places for ourselves. Partnerships are greater when everyone comes together whether it is communities, architects, governments etc and learn to co-curate. People are not stupid and like Deborah said we need open honest dialogues.'

Blackwall Yard, Poplar with Thames Clipper waterbus on right - image courtesy of Hadley Property Group

Consulting with the community was more difficult for Hadley Property Group said Matt Rimmer during the pandemic:

'We started consulting with the community on our development at Blackwall Yard, then Covid struck and all the consultations went online and we got very black and white responses. It wasn't a good way of finding out what people wanted. Post pandemic we spent a lot of time with the neighbours to the development and the Bangladeshi community. We discovered the meanwhile uses were very important. So we created allotment spaces and found people coming down to see it all.

'Attending to the heritage of a place has also been vital. Blackwall Yard is built in front of an old graving yard, effectively where ships go to 'die' and was used as such in Medieval and Tudor times. One man came down to scatter ashes. So everywhere has a cultural resonance. We are using the dock as a redeveloped outdoor swimming facility that will go on having a community purpose.'

Matt was asked whether developers do skip on community facilities and think if they put in a small corner version of a supermarket, that they have done their job?

'Some developers do but others are now recognising the value of place. We are working on a development in Stratford International where we are putting in a range of homes, some build to rent and some student living etc. But it is how you deal with curation of place. We don't have a long stewardship arm and that is a big issue but we have put in a community charter which future commercial partners have to sign up to. It is something that requires resources, energy and commitment and you really have to face up to it.'

Hadley's design team worked closely with Tower Hamlets Council, local residents and community groups to create and refine proposals for a mixed-use development at Blackwall Yard, in Poplar. A short walk from East India DLR Station, Blackwall Yard will become a new riverside neighbourhood, regenerating what was previously an underused, concreted private car park. The consented proposals will deliver 898 new homes (35% of which will be affordable housing), a two-form primary school, a community hub, spaces for a cafe, pub and grocery store, all built around a new public square and green spaces for residents and visitors to enjoy.

This section of the Thames Path, which has been closed for a number of years, will be reopened. The historic graving dock, filled in as the area's shipbuilding declined, will become an amphitheatre-style garden and an outdoor swimming pool, and new pedestrian and cycle routes will loop among the buildings and out to the riverfront. The development's stretching environmental, economic and social value outcomes will actively contribute to Tower Hamlet's goal to be a green, safe and cohesive borough. Tower Hamlet's Strategic Development Committee granted unanimous consent for the proposals in June 2021.

Could new homes be created in the City of London to complement, offices, restaurants and shops, providing a sustainable day to night economy?

Ellie Evans from Volterra - an economics consultancy - continued on the theme of best practice for designing sustainable places:

'There are growing numbers of developers who understand place but what we are lacking is a thorough understanding of best practice across everyone involved, because the knowledge is not brought together and published. The analysis could have a lot of impact. This creates better data.

'I have been working on a proposal for a housing development on the outskirts of London, but the community has not been convinced. It is an area that has the highest house prices and ageing population and therefore a cost to the health service. We need to think creatively where we put housing, but these developments can provide new a health centre and allotments as well as schools. We need to engage with the community and understand their priorities and how to respond to that.

'This is often the situation on the green belt, but we also need to think about our retail centres where landowners can have lots of vacancy rates in shopping centres and this could be converted to residential. Some say that office blocks are now becoming full again as people return to work post pandemic, but there are lots of buildings in the City of London that won't meet sustainability targets and could be re-purposed for homes, also meaning that the City would be a more mixed and vibrant place and not dead after working hours.

'Another concern of mine is the issue of local authorities insisting on car parking - often 2.5 parking spaces for each home. We must look forward and encourage car pooling, despite that it is really difficult to do out of London with lower density.' We are working on a very exciting programme of evaluating the idea of giving away free cycles and we will be able to come up with a robust set of analysis to lobby government with, with the idea of encouraging more cycling and less dependency on the car.'

Before the pandemic Gavin Miller, Director from MICA Architects was working on an important project for improved transport and housing density. He explained:

'We were carrying out studies for Transport for London, radical studies of a whole series of areas of London, partly to test the route for Crossrail and where we could realise housing. It was really interesting to ask the question - what types of suburbs could be densified and we finished with a large database of study. Crossrail 2 didn't happen but it showed that the fabric of these suburbs could absorb everything we were looking at. Then Covid came along and we wondered whether people would feel the same way about density. We are now living in a different time with opportunities for more cycling and coming up with new ways to encourage that.

'I think everyone values heritage, and everyone loves a story. Twenty five years ago we came up with a masterplan to take away services access from the frontage of the Royal Festival Hall and put restaurants and shops in there instead. There were doubters who said nobody wants to go to the Southbank to eat out! However, it happened and it is successful and lively. People even appreciate the brutalist buildings on the Southbank.

Festival Hall, Southbank - image courtesy of MICA Architects.


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