Sadiq Khan has declared the housing crisis to be the “single biggest barrier” to London’s prosperity. Yet, the solution is far more complex than simply building more houses. How we build and what we build will have lasting implications on London’s communities and their residents. As part of the London Festival of Architecture, the Legatum Institute held a panel that explored what makes a house a home. The discussion marked the publication of two studies that examine the link between housing and wellbeing: Housing the Mind, a Legatum Institute essay and Heart in the Right Street, a study by Create Streets.

Nicholas Boys Smith championed a policy approach that ensures architecture works for the many. This means using objective data to determine what types of built form are popular in a community rather than relying on notions of “good design”. While each place is unique, his research shows common themes and he asserts that beauty is not subjective. “Beauty really matters… It is predicable what people will find beautiful.” Connectivity, greenery and light are things we all crave. Far too often, the notion of beauty is overlooked in politics on the assumption that it will alienate; on the contrary, the data suggests it can only unite.

Ciaran Abbey argued that housing is about more than just shelter. It provides a cornerstone from which humans can develop and flourish. As an NHS in-patient consultant, she sees firsthand how a stable housing environment factors into a person’s mental health. She spoke movingly of visits to tower blocks with dark, confusing layouts that provided no opportunity for interactions with neighbors and contributed to feelings of anxiety and fear among residents. People thrive when they have homes that allow them to build communities, have a sense of belonging, and be active and productive.

Rowan Moore spoke of the importance of preserving London’s democratic nature - its capacity to be a home for everyone, a place where everyone can find a niche. Moore spoke of the danger of economism and, specifically, of the culture in which developers must meet targets, even if the result is substandard architecture. “How do we build more housing that doesn’t wreck the city?” “You have to use every tool in the box,” urged Moore, who places more faith in the public sector than he does in developers to be creative with resources.

For the first time in over forty years, affordable housing is the number one issue in London, according to polls by Ipsos Mori. Ben Page spoke of the difference between types of architecture that are good for business versus domesticity. Research has revealed that most people in the UK want to live in either terraced houses or bungalows, and yet, Page lamented, development such as Nine Elms consist largely of expensive tower blocks.

Housing policy is clearly outdated and unloved by politicians, yet this could be an opportunity. Innovation is absolutely necessary to meet the challenges of this century’s unprecedented urbanisation. This will require new mixtures of parties and approaches that are willing to break from the status quo to ensure solutions are not just for today, but also for community prosperity and individual wellbeing well into the future.


About the Speakers

Ciaran Abbey is a consultant psychiatrist who has trained and worked mainly in inner-city London boroughs before moving to Oxfordshire in 2015. She obtained her medical degree in Edinburgh. Her research has focused on the development and progress of Alzheimer's disease and looking at the effects of isolation, physical health factors, and medical treatments on mental health disorders. She has been particularly interested in exercise and its interaction with mental health.  She works for the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust clinically and has research links with the University.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Founding Director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets, not multi-storey buildings and a Legatum Fellow. He is an Academician of the Academy of Urbanism and has sat on the Government’s Design Panel since December 2014. Nicholas is the author of a wide range of studies and pamphlets mainly on economic and social policy.

Rowan Moore is the architecture critic for the Observer and previously for the Evening Standard. He is also a trained architect, and between 2002 and 2008 was the Director of the Architecture Foundation. He is the author of Slow Burn City and Why We Build.

Ben Page is Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI. For two decades he has worked closely with both Conservative and Labour ministers and senior policy-makers across government, leading on work for Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the Department of Health, as well as a wide range of local authorities and NHS Trusts. He was a Commissioner at CABE from 2003-2010.

Hywel Williams is a Senior Advisor to the Legatum Institute, leading The Culture of Prosperity programme. Hywel is also an historian, commentator and broadcaster. His books include The Age of Chivalry: Culture and Power in Medieval Europe 950-1450; Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire; and Britain’s Power Elites: The Rebirth of A Ruling Class. His history of the modern coal industry, and a polemical essay, Community and its Myths, were broadcast by S4C in 2015.

About the Architecture of Prosperity Series

The Architecture of Prosperity, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, evaluates the impact of the built environment on human wellbeing and the capacity for creativity. The series of lectures, seminars and conferences address the central question of why some forms of architecture promote prosperity while others are linked to vicious effects.