To inaugurate its 'Architecture of Prosperity' series, the Legatum Institute convened a seminar on Prosperity, Community and Identity: the built environment and creative capacity, which brought together a range of experts and practitioners from the worlds of architecture, planning, politics, academia and mental health. UK Minister for Planning, Nick Boles, served as guest speaker.
Exploring the theme from two perspectives, participants discussed how the architectural context of people’s lives contributes to their mental health and creative capacity, and secondly how the challenges of contemporary urban development and rejuvenation have created the opportunity for creative cross-disciplinary collaborations.
Launching the seminar, Minister for Planning Nick Boles drew on recent developments in Battersea to demonstrate how, when done correctly, redevelopment benefits the whole of society and can cater to a wide range of functions and purposes. Elaborating on this theme, Boles stressed the importance of balancing heritage and modernity. In growing cities such as London, there are situations where the city is both overly protective of existing architecture in some areas, while being too quick to demolish buildings in others.
In the 1970s, for example, the sense of community suffered as a result of rapid demolition and reconstruction. In Battersea today, redevelopment has been respectful of the heritage and iconic architecture of Battersea Power Station, while finding diverse uses for the physical space inside the power station and surrounding area. Boles concluded by saying that in London, we are beginning to understand how to “respect, preserve, and reuse” the old, while creating new communities that are lively and dynamic. In closing, Boles said the task was now to transplant that creative dynamism out of London into other cities with much more constrained financial circumstances.
'The Context of Prosperity' (Session 1)
The first session looked at how the architectural context of people’s lives can contribute to their wellbeing and creativity. The discussion revolved around to the challenges and opportunities of building a sense of community in new housing developments, as well as redevelopment projects.
In his presentation, Nicholas Boys Smith stated that that a large majority of the global population would prefer to live in conventional, low-rise housing.
- Boys Smith presented studies that found the closer someone lives to the ground, adjusting for socio-economic status, the higher their levels of wellbeing and contentment. This is for three main reasons: firstly it is harder to raise children in tall buildings away from the ground; secondly people tend to behave better with their neighbours if they are on ground level, and are more likely to know and interact with them; and thirdly the semi public-private space in tower blocks increases the ease of crime.
- Boys Smith concluded that we risk repeating the mistakes of 50 years ago. Stringent planning laws limit the utilisation of space to the greatest degree possible. For example, rules requiring a certain amount of green space, and a proportion of new builds to be fully wheelchair accessible, force designers to build tower blocks to reach density targets while also complying with other planning rules. Georgian townhouses in areas like Pimlico, for example, could not be built today because of the numerous planning rules they would break, despite being extremely spatially efficient.
- Boys Smith stated that if London’s post-war estates were redeveloped to create conventional terraced houses, depending on the site, density could be increased by between 20 to 60 percent, equating to 250-300,000 new housing units.
Crispin Kelly, of Baylight Properties, then argued that that financial prosperity can be the enemy of community, in that the more prosperous people become the more likely they are to close themselves off, and segregate themselves from wider community life.
- Kelly then stated that communities are fed-up with new housing being forced upon them, and as such nimbyism can be an understandable phenomenon.
- Responding to this Kelly discussed his idea for a neighbourhood plan. The plan would allow the community to buy land at a discounted cost, sell plots to a developer and then using that profit, buy a number of community owned houses.
- These houses could be offered to people who would otherwise not be able to live in a particular area or community. This would allow communities to diversify the range of skills and experience in the community and contribute to a richer shared experience. Creative professionals or young people are two groups who might benefit from this arrangement.
- Kelly concluded that when a community is flourishing there is tension as it becomes more desirable. The neighbourhood plan provides an outlet for this tension, allowing communities to thrive in more ways than simple expansion.
Ciaran Abbey, a consultant Psychiatrist at the West London Mental Health Trust, brought the first session to a close by discussing the direct and indirect impact of housing on the mind.
- Abbey firstly stated that we needed to think about housing as homes. To make it a home you need affordability, security of tenure, and for it to be desirable.
- Abbey stated agreed with Boys Smith that the higher up someone lives, the worse it is for their wellbeing, with particularly damaging consequences for children. People feel better when they have autonomy over their surroundings, and closed and unmonitored spaces in tower blocks lead to a feeling of helplessness and lack of control, conditions conducive to mental illness.
- Building on this point, Abbey stated that another element of poor planning is that it results in “unwanted social interaction”; living in an open or high-rise building means residents have little control over their interactions in shared spaces. Abbey argued that post-war estates were set-up in such a way that forces these interactions, leading to a feeling of vulnerability and stress.
- Abbey concluded by saying that cities and villages need to be designed with mental health in mind. In shared or social housing this would mean fewer shared spaces, wide visual capability of one’s surroundings, the ability to control social interaction, and access to nature.
'The Future of the Modern City' (Session 2)
The second session explored how redevelopment can create new opportunities for creative collaboration across disciplines. Architect Adam Richards opened the session by demonstrating how contemporary architecture can connect with community, place and identity.
- Richards firstly explained the rise of the ‘iconic’ building, such as a landmark art gallery or parliament building, which is individually impressive, but can’t claim to contribute to wider wellbeing and prosperity. In describing projects as ‘iconic’ it allows designers to sidestep the existing identity and community of a place, and therefore doesn’t contribute to a healthy local society.
- Relating this point to urban renewal, Richards explained how traditionally new design projects were divided into extensive projects, such as roads and bridges, and intensive projects, relating to the ceremonies and laws which established the ethnical context and meaning of a project.
- Today these worlds are separate, extensive infrastructure projects are now seen as ends in themselves, while intensive projects that give place meaning and generate social capital now come from charities, local clubs and community centres.
- Drawing on his practice’s own work, Richards described how in designing the Ditchling Museum for Arts and Craft, he combined both the extensive and the intensive in such a way that the museum established a critical dialogue between the present and the past.
- Richards concluded by saying that these principles can be applied to smaller-scale projects in cities, which may lead to a stronger sense of community ownership.
Graham Henderson, the CEO of Poet in the City, then set out his vision for a poetry town: a new kind of town which uses public art as an expression of community to spur renewal and generate new business opportunities.
- Henderson’s starting point was the ‘genius loci’ described by Alexander Pope, which evolved into the modern concept of ‘sense of place’. This sense of place described by Pope fed into the public art, landscapes and surviving country houses of the Georgian period. His driving goal is to find a contemporary vocabulary for place-making, more suited for a modern, urban and diverse society.
- To this end Poet in the City made proposals for public art in Twickenham. In these proposals the aim was to combine regeneration with public art, and as such allows people to enhance the enjoyment of urban space, while creating a sense of identity and community.
- Henderson stated that by “rendering concrete the spirit of place” public work can express bodies, values and meanings which speak to people as citizens. Even at a time when art is seen as a luxury, it is actually a by-product of a dynamic culture.
- He concluded by saying that public art and poetry demonstrates how social values and community can find physical expression.
In the day’s final presentation, Jonathan McClory, an Associate with the Institute for Government, discussed the rise of shared creative working spaces across European capitals.
- McClory first described the large and growing importance of the creative industries to the UK economy. The UK’s internet economy was 9% of GDP in 2009, and is predicted to grow to 15% by 2015.
- McClory explained how the dynamic working patterns of digital start-ups, creative professionals and artists have led to a growth in fluid, often temporary shared working space.
- The changing nature of companies and work reflect this new flexibility in shared working spaces. The self-selecting nature of these working environments, be they in London, Berlin or St Petersburg, create new creative communities, and allows them to live and work in spaces that otherwise wouldn’t be affordable.
Video - Ciaran Abbey and Crispin Kelly
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.