Perhaps the most obvious impact of the lock-down is that we’re all forced to be at home. This seems, for many people, a difficult thing – to actually have to live in the place we ‘live’ in. Why has that become so strange and challenging?
I think one reason is that, just as our lives have become a means to the end of collecting enough money to survive, our homes have become a means to the end of being tolerably close to the places we have to go to in order to earn that money. We are often forced to choose where we live on the basis of needing to be somewhere else.
A second, related reason, is that, for many, rents and house prices are so high in places where work is available, that they are forced to live in substandard accommodation. So both the location of our homes and their quality, have fallen down our list of priorities – and often, not through our own choice. Now, trapped in these locations and in these buildings, we realise their limitations.
The first set of limitations relate to location. Many new housing estates are built on the edge of population centres, or on the green field sites between them; land in these places offers a ‘clean slate’ on which the ‘by numbers’ development templates of big construction companies can be applied without hindrance. This style of development also fits the zonal planning system – residential use here, commercial there, retail somewhere else.
What results, is dormitory areas. To visit the shops or the cinema or the pub, residents have to get in their cars and travel elsewhere. To go to work or to take their children to school they have to do the same. Their social, economic and physical geographies are split apart. In such conditions, it is very hard for a sense of community to develop, for people to actively engage in their locality – in decision-making or democracy or even just by socialising. And the old, the sick, and the children, who are more constrained within their physical environment, are left isolated, existing in the spaces that others merely drive through or sleep in – places where there is nothing to do and nowhere to go if you don’t have a car. Again – places that are the means to an end that lies elsewhere.
The second set of limitations relates to houses and apartments themselves. Many people in urban areas are living in small, cramped apartments, places with poor sound insulation, places which haven’t been maintained properly by landlords, places with no gardens or shared green spaces, places built to minimum standards in terms of size, materials and sustainability. Again, the most vulnerable in our society are trapped in the worst of these places, with landlords who are still demanding rental payments as the crisis continues.
Where do these observations lead us? What kind of physical environment could be an end in itself? A place that we could enjoy living and working in, rather than a base from which to go elsewhere?
I’m lucky enough to live in a small coastal town, close to the centre but also to the sea and countryside. Thinking about what is positive about the environment, one thing stands out: I don’t live in an estate, surrounded by houses and nothing else, I live in a place where everything is mixed together – housing, retail, entertainment, culture, business and recreation. The roads go to places, there are footpaths – the scale and design of the environment is for pedestrians and cyclists, not cars. I can walk to the shops, to the university, to the pub. Families living near the centre are within walking distance of schools and green spaces.
To put it another way, my social, economic and physical geographies are united. And that means that when I do go to the shops or to the pub or to the university, the people I meet are also the people I live close to. I see my neighbours in the street or in town because we can walk to work, or to the shops; we don’t have to get in the car and go elsewhere. People naturally meet and chat with the elderly because their activities are taking place in the physical space that they live in too.
The lesson is clear – make new developments mixed, all uses together – abandon zonal planning. Of course, you might not want an oil refinery on your doorstep, but why not offices next to houses? Why not retail mixed in with both? Why not schools? We have been conditioned to think that this is impossible, that new-build must be on vast estates cleansed from any other uses apart from housing. And yet such mixed development happens elsewhere in the world.
The more that people live in integrated environments, the less need they have to get into their cars, the less they have to drive through other communities, the less need for large car parks. If people are already living where they want and need to be, the noise and pollution caused by moving between places reduces – especially if cycle paths and footpaths are prioritised in development. Communities and culture can grow organically as people interact in shared spaces, the marginalised find themselves where the social action is, without anyone needing to consciously force it. And local democracy is boosted because people are really present in their location, not just sleeping there or or there for the weekends.
The second way I am lucky is with accommodation – I rent a small house with space to move around in; it’s well-built and pretty well sound proofed and I’m close to green spaces. For mixed developments to work, people need to have pleasant domestic spaces to live and – increasingly – to work in. They need to have ample green spaces they can enjoy without being crowded together: parks, common land, allotments and public gardens.
The only way we can build the number of homes we need and still have green spaces to enjoy without sprawling housing out across our whole countryside, is to build upwards – apartment blocks of four or five storeys. And the only way for apartment blocks to be acceptable for people to live in, is if each apartment is large, well sound-proofed, well insulated and well designed, and with reasonably sized balconies. This happens in other countries, why not here? Why do we build to minimum standards, rather than demanding the highest standards of sustainability and quality from design, materials, and building practices? After all, housing is expensive enough.
The type of mixed development I describe should be for town and village as well as for the city – there is no reason for them not to be, and in more geographically isolated areas, every reason to prioritise such changes. Mixed development with adequate green space, land sparing through building upwards with apartment blocks, and regulation to raise quality and sustainability in construction, offers the possibility of creating living, breathing, sustainable and resilient environments that people live in because they want to. Homes and businesses integrated to form communities that are an end in themselves, commerce that is rooted in the communities in which it is based through the workers it employs. And from that new physical environment can flow the social and behavioural change, the improved mental and physical health that we need. At present we pay for sprawling estates and ill health and low productivity and environmental degradation – why not redirect that money to pay for an environment that tackles those ills?
So, for me, the lesson from the COVID-19 crisis is this: sort out the places that we live in.
Make them places we want to stay in and not escape from, places where we have green space and can find solitude, but where community and democracy are thriving. Utopian? Yes, of course, but if we don’t have visions to aim for, the short-term interests of the market will continue to give us types of life and environment that we don’t actually want.