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Neighbourhood Watch: Thoughts on the Hood

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17 Jul 2020

<p>The coronavirus pandemic has made us all acutely aware of our surroundings and the possible changes ahead on how we might regard them. As a founder of architects Smith Scott Mullan Associates, former chair of the Scottish Civic Trust and a current board member of Architecture &amp; Design Scotland, Alistair Scott has had a long involvement in area regeneration and argues that &lsquo;neighbourhood&rsquo; is the critical component of our physical environment.</p>

The coronavirus pandemic has made us all acutely aware of our surroundings and the possible changes ahead on how we might regard them. As a founder of architects Smith Scott Mullan Associates, former chair of the Scottish Civic Trust and a current board member of Architecture & Design Scotland, Alistair Scott has had a long involvement in area regeneration and argues that ‘neighbourhood’ is the critical component of our physical environment.

From the joys of local shopping to the challenges of home schooling and even the Thursday evening street clapping session, the current crisis has made us all consider those two key locations in our lives – our home and our neighbourhood. This is highly appropriate, for as we try to build better towns and cities, we do need to see the neighbourhood as the fundamental spatial building block of our towns and cities. It is where we live, access immediate services and have casual social interaction. It is central to our sense of belonging and hence to our health and wellbeing in general. However for something so important, the concept doesn’t feature strongly enough in our thinking on how we will expand our settlements or regenerate existing areas.

Plenty of analysis exists into how many houses Scotland should be producing in a year (generally thought to be around 30,000) but we need to think not just of units but of neighbourhoods. Even attempting to quantify this is difficult, but even a “back of the napkin” calculation will show the challenge. If even half of these houses were central to neighbourhood creation, we should be producing about 6 new, successful, neighbourhoods every year (assuming a neighbourhood of about 5000 residents). As it takes a minimum of about 10 years to create a neighbourhood, we should be able to identify about 60 new neighbourhoods currently under development across Scotland - but I just don’t think we can. If you take a look at the general product of our housing industry, you usually see a car-orientated form of compressed residential suburbia rather than diverse, thriving neighbourhoods. So how do we change that?

A fundamental change has been happening at Scottish Government policy level in recent years, with The National Performance Framework defining overall objectives and the more recent adoption of the “Place Principle” guiding resource allocation and service delivery. At a physical level, this manifests itself in initiatives such as the “Place Standard” which I am sure many of us have successfully used as a discussion basis in our work. Developed by Architecture & Design Scotland, Public Health Scotland and the Scottish Government, this is a particularly effective tool in neighbourhood planning as it addresses both physical and social issues. At present the introduction of Local Place Plans is a continuation of this process. All these moves are highly positive, but both communities and developers need to have an easily understood focus on the physical planning of an area and I believe that the principle of “neighbourhood” does provide that.

This notion is not in any way a new one (Gardens Cities / Urban Villages etc.) but one of the problems with “neighbourhood” is that it is just hard to pin down as a physical form due to the degree of variety, yet on a personal level each one of us has a pretty clear idea of what it means to us. Look at most town or city development plans and you can find certain areas that could be defined as neighbourhoods, often if they are conservation areas or have some form of physical barriers, but it is not a universal way of seeing things. This is no doubt because the concept is to a large extent based on human perception, although I believe that good physical planning would make their identification a whole lot easier. 

As designers of our physical environment we need to make long term decisions. Various organisations are developing 2040 visions, which is probably a pretty good time horizon for our towns and cities, but we need to move from discussing visions to formulating detail plans and guidance. We need to take into account issues such as our rapid technological change and our Climate Emergency (yes – remember when news programmes featured that!). So we need to do it now, as the next 20 years will see a significant expansion of many of our towns and cities - just look at the number of new “villages / districts / linked settlements etc.” in the planning pipeline. So let’s think “neighbourhood”. 

If we envisage neighbourhoods along the traditional European model of walkable access to facilities, pedestrian orientated streets which allow face to face interaction and buildings which create a distinctive public realm, the pattern is reasonably clear and we can get stuck into the detail. We need continuous cycle routes, we need to re-provision local high streets and we need to work out how we make a zero carbon conservation area. Not insignificant tasks, but not insurmountable either, and we are gearing up for the challenge.

However, the current situation will set us a whole new set of circumstances, such as the increase in homeworking and flexible work patterns which should result in people spending more time in their local neighbourhood. This provides us with opportunities to promote issues key to our wellbeing, such as cycle routes and the necessity for local greenspace for exercise. However, I can also see some significant threats to this agenda emerging. After a fairly long period of general consensus in urbanism, the combination of the social and economic impact of Coronavirus, along with emerging technologies could easily lead to other visions gaining credibility.

Online retail is killing traditional shopping and almost everything is available via home delivery, which will increasingly make the home the place to receive all services, from shopping to remote healthcare. Meanwhile the success of digital platforms such as Microsoft Teams is causing a re-think of the need for workspace and hence commuting requirements. The self-driving transformation is now on the horizon with all that means for personal and service mobility.

Throw in concentrated food production replacing all those muddy acres of methane-generating cows and fields of barley which surround our settlements and you get an argument for understanding our neighbourhoods as much wider networks – a spread-out, digitally connected, Uber and drone serviced urban pattern.

This scenario is incidentally more resilient to pandemic transition (you don’t need all that dangerous public transport) and it is interesting to note that in the 1940’s case for developing the New Towns, one of the influencing factors were the vulnerability of densely packed cities to aerial bombing and hence a bit of built-in social distancing was required! So if your aim is to promote the replacement of our greenbelts with a low-density suburbia (as is happening now) then the argument is not hard to construct. However, as one who strongly believes in walkable and physically socially connected communities, this scenario just doesn’t appeal to my view of lifestyle.

There is no easy answer to this dichotomy - but I feel a debate emerging and we don’t have the luxury of time for prolonged discussion. My personal view is that we need to accept that technology changes rapidly and that human culture evolves more slowly. In the next few years, we are going the see rapid advances in areas such as biotechnology and artificial intelligence, but perhaps our basic motivations may not be that different from our ancestors. Following this path would entail un-coupling the view (probably historically correct) that our physical environment is a direct reflection of our technological capability. We then need to be guided by humanist values and make our technology serve these ends. So, my case is that we continue to see our neighbourhoods in the “European” tradition, but allow them to develop for the future, incorporating our emerging technology.

Obviously, neighbourhoods come in all shapes and sizes, but very roughly they could be thought of as about a square kilometre in area and their character is then formed by architectural factors such as landform, height of buildings and density. So if we are to imagine a 2040 neighbourhood, we need some fixed points of reference, so how about these seven:

  1. A definite identity or sense of “place” is vital to our perception of our neighbourhood.
  2. Diversity is the key to sustainability - as it in all nature.
  3. The accepted 400-meter walking radius (about a 5 - 7 minute walk) to basic facilities will still define our ideal immediate surroundings.
  4. Facilities must cluster and not be just located on the cheapest, most readily available site.
  5. Each neighbourhood will require a hierarchy of varied, high-quality greenspace.
  6. Linkage to the wider urban structure is vital.
  7. Education will still be communal and the Primary School will be a major focus of the neighbourhood, hence we need more consideration of their location and their wider community role.

Around these, we can develop location-specific issues such as density, streetscape continuity, car reduction, local food production and energy efficiency, but we will see the neighbourhood as the core focus for all planning and development decisions. There is nothing in this that prevents us being part of on-line communities or taking a driverless cab into town for a night out, but it would cement a basic attachment to a “place” in our lives, which I believe is crucial to our health and wellbeing.

In many existing communities such positions have evolved naturally, but where we are regenerating, revitalising or creating new communities we just so often seem to fall short. Often the private sector developer gets the blame (and sometimes deserves it) but this is an issue where the civic body, in general, must take the lead. This means proactive planning at all levels and integration of public, community and private resources and ambitions. In the end, it is all about people and just perhaps this period of reflection on how we interact with those immediately around us will prove to be a catalyst for a better and more considered future.

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