The central message of the Urban Task Force Report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, was that we cannot consider housing in isolation from the future of our towns and cities.
The potential of wasted spaces
Many positive policy responses followed the publication of our report 15 years ago: two of the most important were a commitment to use previously-developed land to accommodate growth in our towns and cities, and the establishment of a National Land Use Database (NLUD) to assess and monitor the capacity of these sites.
Though political parties still pay lip service to the concept of ‘brownfield first’, the figures are falling – from 80 per cent of new housing on brownfield sites in 2008 to 68 per cent in 2011. And politicians of all stripes have been talking about new towns and garden cities, threatening a return to the mistakes of the past; ‘new town blues’ in lifeless dormitories, hollowing out of our towns and cities, and unnecessary encroachment on green field sites. In comparison, retrofitting existing cities is both socially effective and energy efficient.
As this timely report (From Wasted Space to Living Spaces) shows, there is no urgent need to sprawl onto greenfield sites. We still have capacity for more than one million homes on brownfield sites, and some estimates suggest that total capacity could be 1.5 million homes – as high as it was in 2009, when the last full survey was published. In many places new sites have emerged as fast as previously identified sites are developed. And that is before we even start looking at the scope to retrofit and intensify existing developments. There is certainly sufficient land and inefficient buildings to see us through many years of house building to come.
There is some uncertainty about the precise figures, as Government has only published raw and incomplete NLUD data for 2011 and 2012, and did not commission a survey of brownfield land at all in 2013. Given the importance of this issue to our towns, cities and countryside, it seems bizarre that we are not collecting accurate data to support decision making.
In the meantime, as this report indicates, there is nothing to suggest that our supply of brownfield sites is running low. We should focus on better planning and funding systems to build new towns – but in our towns and cities, not on inaccessible and unsustainable green field sites.
Richard Rogers – Architect, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (photo © Benedict Johnson)
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