Who actually designs our urban environment?
After attending a recent lecture “Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition” by Mark Massey from IDPartnership, it forced me to begin to wonder, who actually designs our urban environment?
Particularly with regards to housing developments, I’m interested in deciphering where the voice and the power comes from in order to create a prominent element of our urban environment.
From politician to professional to public
In order to understand who dictates our urban environment, we must dissect each of the three key perspectives to get to grips with what they do or do not contribute.
Firstly, the Government. Year upon year the government promise to build a huge number of new affordable houses in England. The number they regurgitate is generally 300,000 new homes,  but in reality, at the very best only around 215,000 – 220,000 (not necessarily affordable) new houses are provided and they are from independent developers, not from government funding.
From the top, politicians aren’t achieving what they have committed to. Philip Hammond, former chancellor of the exchequer stated that they would use the “powers of state to get the missing homes built”. But as successive Conservative governments have failed to provide any of the 200,000 starter homes they committed to build in 2015, by 2020, can we really believe that they are doing ‘everything in their power’?
With the impending doom of the results from the recent UK general election, is hindsight a forecast of what the Conservative government have to offer us for the next 4-5 years?
Next up; the design professionals.
Ralph Erskine, designer of Byker Wall in Newcastle, UK, was one of the first Architects in the UK to pioneer engagement with end users. While most architects at the time were middle to upper class, they had little to no understanding of what the needs of the many were. That’s one of the reasons why Ralph Erskine was seen as revolutionary in his approach during the 1970’s and a social engineer. While some may think of it as an eye-sore, the community it was designed for feel a strong affinity to it as they felt they were finally being heard and belonged. Byker was very advanced in its thinking, even if it is aesthetically outdated now.
It’s easily arguable that the main difference between the Byker Wall Estate case study and most other housing developments was the fact that it was designed for an existing community; not to simply manifest new ones, or more accurately, profit.
Does this consideration play a major role in the success of a housing development?
The boundaries between professional and public in this case study are almost blurred, and it could be argued that the two voices are almost tantamount to one another.
And lastly, the public.
As discussed Byker Wall Estate was designed for an existing community. But what other factors must we consider?
The housing concept outlines various aspects which contribute to a ‘liveable’ urban environment; such as community, landscape and play, pedestrian primacy, connectivity, innovative and varied house types and contemporary appearance.
It was strongly required by the residents of Byker to be involved in the planning process, but it is naive of us to assume that it will always be the same community exclusively. People will move in and move out, pass away and be born into. Many theories on how to make more liveable cities and environments were developed during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s by the likes of Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl and William Whyte. But the reality is that communities constantly change, adapt and grow; so how much of an impact should the end user’s opinions have on the design when they may not be the ones to occupy it in a few years’ time? Byker is the perfect example, as an estate designed specifically for the existing community, “fewer than 20% of them were living in the new Byker in 1976.” 
So, how do you design a housing development for a constantly changing community to keep up to date with users’ needs?
Top-down or bottom-up?
With Ministers wanting to “speed up developments” – is this the way to proceed? What we will have is a repeat of post war housing where they are constructed for speed but will not necessarily last the test of time and are very unlikely to comply with modern design principles to successfully contribute to the regeneration the urban environment.
I suppose, ultimately, every member of society from politicians to the public should have the opportunity to engage with their surroundings and the place they call home.
It is very democratic to account for everyone but is the only way the urban environment can improve, realistically, to listen to the ‘experts’?
If you want to read more into Byker Wall Estate, check out Charlotte’s post here
 HM Treasury, “Housing: 2018 Budget Brief” (HM Treasury, October 29, 2018), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/housing-budget-2018-brief. [Accessed: 15th November 2019]
 Mark Massey, “Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition” (November 14, 2019).
 BBC, “Budget 2017: Plans to Build 300,000 New Homes a Year,” BBC News, November 19, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42043084. [Accessed: 15th November 2019]
 Rajeev Syal, “Tories Fail to Build Any of 200,000 Starter Homes Promised in 2015, Says Watchdog,” The Guardian, November 5, 2019, UK edition, sec. Housing, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/05/tories-broke-pledge-on-starter-homes-in-2015-manifesto-report-says. [Accessed: 15th November 2019]
 Massey, “Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition.”
 Anna Minton, “Byker Wall: Newcastle’s Noble Failure of an Estate – a History of Cities in 50 Buildings, Day 41,” The Guardian, May 21, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/may/21/byker-wall-newcastles-noble-failure-of-an-estate-a-history-of-cities-in-50-buildings-day-41. [Accessed: 7th January 2020]
 Massey, “Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition.”
 Minton, “Byker Wall: Newcastle’s Noble Failure of an Estate – a History of Cities in 50 Buildings, Day 41.” [Accessed: 7th January 2020]
 BBC, “Budget 2017: Plans to Build 300,000 New Homes a Year.” [Accessed: 15th November 2019]
Figure 1: Google Search Engine results for ‘tories housing’, https://www.google.com/search?q=tories+housing&oq=tories+housing&aqs=chrome.0.69i59j0l6.4152j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
Figure 2: Ralph Erskine’s office in Byker. He worked here during the development of Byker Wall Estate to make it more convenient for the community to engage with the design process, https://www.insidermedia.com/news/north-east/former-architects-office-to-be-converted-for-housing, Farrell, S.
Figure 3: Example of the Byker Wall Estate community in 2015, https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/insight/insight/a-lesson-in-tenant-engagement111-57588, Hilditch, M.