Sociable housing meets public transport – 10 things I learned in Eindhoven

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The UK has a housing crisis. Not enough of the right kind of homes in the right formats in the right places and at the right price. We can and must do better and part of this means making better connections between transport and housing (and professionals working in these two sectors) in order to get more of the right kind of homes in the right places, especially more homes which are readily accessible by public transport, cycling and walking. In pursuit of this aim, this summer I took part in the Academy of Urbanism’s annual congress (in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands) on the theme of affordable housing.

You can download a full report on the ten things I learnt at the event here – including how you may soon be able to print your own house; why social housing is back in the UK and why this could mean more opportunities for infill transit orientated development could happen; where in the world the most revered cities are on housing (spoiler alert – they are also great on public transport!); and how tired conventions around what a house should be are set for some overdue disruption.

My biggest takeaway? On housing, every country is, to some extent, a prisoner of its past and in the UK that past has put us in a difficult and moribund place. However, at the same time, change is here. The political damage and popular dissatisfaction that extreme financialisation of housing is causing is also now placing limits on further commodification. This has also helped contribute to the comeback of public, social and sociable housing. All of which means there are big opportunities out there to do everything at the same time to create great places to live, which are both environmentally and sociably sustainable. And of course, transit oriented.

Read the full report.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

When transport met housing…

housing roundtableYesterday we held a roundtable in parliament chaired (at different stages) by both the Chair of the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee , Clive Betts MP, and his counterpart at the Transport Select Committee, Lilian Greenwood MP. Round the table we had housing associations, developers, planning bodies, transport authorities, local government, Number Ten, DfT and MHCLG, politicians and reps from the public transport sector. All to talk about what good quality, transit orientated housing developments look like – and what’s stopping us from having more of them. More of the ‘good ordinary’ which is as common in the Netherlands as the dispiriting ordinary is common in the UK. It followed on from a report we produced earlier in the year on ‘The Place to Be – how transit orientated development can support good growth in the city regions’.

This is by no means an agreed record of the meeting but here were eight themes that came out strongly for me…and some potential practical next steps.

  1. One theme that came out again and again was think big. Think big on spatial plans, so there is greater certainty on where housing and transport provision can go together. Think bigger than housing and transport as there are plenty of examples of housing developments that have good public transport access but are still poor in many other respects (lack of facilities, poor provision for active travel, poor on carbon emissions and climate resiliance, lack of life, don’t meet social housing need). So it’s not just about making the connections between housing and transport it’s about thinking bigger on other other goals too. Think big too on accumlating the land necessary to do quality mixed developments at scale and in one go.
  2. If we want better places for people to live then we need to put more resources into local authorities’ capacity to shape places. Planning needs to be more than ticking boxes on a skeleton staffing basis it needs to regain the heroic status it has in other countries in making places that really work. And you can’t do that without resourcing.
  3. I don’t understand. The housing sector speaks a different language to the transport sector which speaks a different language to the planning sector. We need to find ways of helping each sector to understand the others…and what can be achieved through effective collaboration. Which brings us to…
  4. Sharing knowledge about the good stuff that’s happening out there because if people don’t know about it they can’t copy it. And there is a lot of inspiring things happening out there. RATP in Paris is a major social landlord with some innovative ways of not just coordinating the planning of housing and transport together. They are doing it together. Such as RATP’s redevelopment of Montrouge bus station in the south of Paris where an underground vehicle maintenance facility for 195 buses will have above it retail units, office space, 650 new flats, a primary school, creche, a social club for elderly people. The development will have also have a green roof creating a 1.2 hectare roof garden. TfL too are motoring on their housing programme of 10,000 homes and aim to be the biggest build to rent landlord in London.  And TfGM are undertaking some exciting work on getting more houses built around stations in Greater Manchester. One outcome for me from the event was the need to find better ways of sharing inspiring schemes like these – and critically how they are being achieved.
  5. There is lots of research into land value capture mechanisms (or land value sharing as it was suggested we call it) and applications of these mechanisms at scale in other countries. But has the time come for more piloting of different and ambitious applications in the UK? This could also be helpful in identifying any necessary legislative change.
  6. In all of this we need to recognise that as far as land value and property is concerned we live in a divided nation. In particular the London property market is a world away from much of that in the other city regions. One size does not fit all.
  7. There is shedloads of potential to achieve more from better coordination of rail and housing (including through more devolution of responsibilities for local networks and stations). If we want denser city centres but ones which have more space for people and less space for vehicles (a near universal urban trend nowadays and exemplifed by the City of London’s new transport strategy). Urban centres which also are decarbonising and enjoying better air quality – then expanded rail networks are needed. Rail too can open up brownfield sites (ex-rail sites and ex- industrial sitesthat were rail served) for housing. Stations can be built around and above, and rail can extend commuter range. To realise this opportunity we need Network Rail to have more leeway – not just to maximise returns to HMT but also to play its full part in making great places around some of the key national railhubs. We also need devolved authorities to have far more say over the station estate as it’s only devolved authorities that have the interest and the local knowledge to pursue the opportunities that exist not just at central sites in core cities but also across wider conurbations. Such as at Maghull North – a new station on the Merseyrail Electric network initiated by Merseytravel (who are the franchising authority for that network) specifically to serve new housing.
  8. The words are good, the reality is often not so good. There is stacks of guidance and planning materials setting out good intentions for what housing should look like (including good transport access) but how come all too often we see estates which are car dependent and some where the roads can’t accommodate a bus even if there was one? And where sometimes there isn’t even a pavement! The blind pursuit of housing targets, and local authorities weak negotiating hand were fingered as being potentially responsible for this. Whatever the reason – we need nonsense like this to stop and to ensure some better coordination across gov and the key NGOs and institutes (and perhaps Housing Associations in particular given their wider social remit) to get the right words ensuring the right outcomes on the ground.

 

 

I build therefore I sprawl

In his latest article for Passenger Transport Magazine, Jonathan Bray asks will where future Britons, live, rely on, or ignore public transport?

Tens of thousands of homes lying empty whilst people sleep on the streets, not enough homes of the right type in the right places, unaffordable homes, not enough new homes being built. Britain has a housing crisis. Nothing new there. Cathy never did come home. But what is new is that Britain’s housing crisis is now near the top of the political agenda. Everyone is now agreed: we need to build more homes. But where will they be and will the places where future Britons live rely on, or ignore, public transport?

How quickly Britain takes to the concept of transit oriented development could be key to answering that question. Transit oriented development means putting public transport at the heart of new developments which are also sufficiently dense to make that public transport viable. Developments where walking and cycling is easy and car use… not so much. Places which are not flats and houses and nothing else – but places which are mixed – combining housing with shops, healthcare, schools and other key services. Brownfield sites should be the first location choice and there should be a significant role for the public sector in their development (as someone needs to hold the ring to ensure quality, affordability, public transport access and that mixed developments happen).

In short they should be places to be. Places to really live. Places that people don’t just sleep at night but places that might be destinations in themselves.

Last time I was in Amsterdam I got tram 26 from Centraal station to an entirely new residential area of the city called IJburg about which I’d read good transit oriented things. The tram romps along, soon escaping the claustrophobic world of selfie-taking, Harry Potter loving mass tourism in the city centre. And in 20 minutes flat it has tunneled and bridged its purpose-built way to the central boulevard of IJburg. Constructed on a series of seven artificial islands on Lake IJmeer on the city’s eastern side, IJburg was created from scratch. Land, street layouts, buildings and all other components of a complete urban district have been developed in less than 10 years on what had previously been the seabed. The plan is that 45,000 people will live there.

Acclimatising in the wintery pre-dusk it took a while for its charms to beguile me; but after a while I got what they mean when they call it the ‘good ordinary’ (which is harder than it looks to achieve). Sub-districts vary from a mix of denser residential and commercial blocks with an earth tone, house style (though with some subtle visual reminders of traditional Amsterdam architecture) and lower density family homes (again with lots of variations in design style). The more I wondered around the more the quality of the architecture and design became apparent as well as the peace and quiet, this place is reverential to its big skies and calm waters. And although some of the roads were generously proportioned for vehicle traffic; somehow the peaceful nature of the place seemed to be slowing everyone down. This place was somewhere where kids could wonder with abandon. You can see why (as a triangulation between suburb and city) there are more families in the place than was originally anticipated.

Pleasing to British eyes was that there seemed to be more independent shops and eateries around rather than our beloved chain stores and estate agents. It also seemed more diverse, settled and faintly egalitarian than its UK counterparts. But despite the mesmerising calm of IJburg (with the sun setting at a watery horizon at the end of its streets), wherever I was, I was rarely out of earshot of the sound of the next tram (‘the people’s gondola’) rumbling its way through the spine of the entire development on its way to the city centre.

Good transit oriented development is not unique to the Netherlands of course. In our recent report (The place to be – How transit oriented development can support good growth in the city regions) we highlight Kirkstall Forge in West Yorkshire, Salford Quays and Northstowe (on the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway), as well as Kings Cross. We are also seeing a new push from transport authorities to build new housing as part of existing, or new transport infrastructure – including Transport for London converting tube station car parks to housing and Transport for Greater Manchester making housing part of its new Stockport bus interchange development. RATP takes this approach even further in the Greater Paris region with subsidiaries which build, develop and run housing – including social housing for public transport employees and new housing developments as part of new transport infrastructure (such as the scheme at Montrouge bus depot which will include 650 new flats).

Back in the UK, Kings Cross is a particularly good example of the key role of the public sector in controlling the pace and quality of regeneration and capturing the uplift in land value in order to fund the supporting infrastructure. The quality control role of the public sector in IJburg was also a major factor in its success with the city council ‘quality team’ having a ‘coach’ working on each part of the development who acted as a coordinating architect, ensuring that the building and block designs of individual designers combined coherently, and that potential conflicts between different users were also considered. All so that “nobody can simply choose the path of least resistance and trot out a design on autopilot”.

Again Kings Cross is a good example of a UK transit oriented development that the public sector ensured was not trotted out on autopilot. Unfortunately there are many residential schemes in the UK which may have good public transport access but feel transient, hollow and fixated on the financialisation of the proximity to views of water. There’s nobody about and nowhere to get a pint of milk.

And meanwhile, out of the cities, in too many places it’s like the nineties never ended: all big sheds, edgelands, none places and ever widening roads. Dystopia is the default and all viewed out of the window of your car as there are no bus stops, and on some new housing estates, no pavements either! Estates built without even the possibility of a conventional bus service because the developer says they won’t build the estate at all if they have to go to the expense of designing the roads to accommodate buses. An Englishman’s home is his castle – and the place where nobody can hear you scream from loneliness if the statistics are anything to go by. The danger is that a rush to build more houses will rush us into a future which is ugly and unworkable.

In our report we make five recommendations on how to make more quality transit oriented development happen in the UK.

Firstly, we need to ensure that we have a national planning framework that favours transit oriented development over car
based sprawl.

The second is for a national funding framework that allows more options for ensuring that value uplift from new developments can be used to improve transport connectivity.

Thirdly, planning authorities need more influence over land held by agencies of national government which would be prime sites for transit oriented development schemes. In particular, city region authorities in England need the same veto powers over Network Rail land sales that the Scottish Government currently enjoys.

Fourthly, transport authorities need more powers over stations where they have the ambition and capacity to take on those responsibilities.

And finally, we need to invest in the planning capacity of local authorities so they can respond effectively rapidly and imaginatively to opportunities for high quality transit oriented development.

All of this seems ambitious in the Westminster context but pales when compared with the Netherlands VINEX plan which increased housing supply by 7.6% in 10 years mostly through urban extensions (of which IJburg was part). And all supported by government funding for the necessary infrastructure. Things are getting ugly out there but it doesn’t need to be that way. We can make places to be. And with wider public transport patronage trends going weird on us, also places that need public transport to thrive.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

Read ‘I build therefore I sprawl‘ here.