Wednesday, 6 June 2012

On housing in York: what would Lewis Mumford do?

York doesn't get much coverage in the national press for some reason – probably because it's pretty nice and not much happens here. So I was surprised to find a feature on the Guardian's Northerner blog about housing problems in the city. The posts can be found here:

I got a bit carried away in the comments section under the name Stupidpuma (how I love Don Cabellero references). Anyway, it turned into a little essay so I thought I'd put a slightly amended version on here. I'm interested in the big picture here – the general problems faced in the city and the type of solution needed. This is off the top of my head and not the product of research. I will probably produce some in-depth pieces on planning and architecture in specific parts of the city but it's important to have a eutopian vision of a possible future.

The situation in York is simple: demand outstrips supply and this inflates the price of renting across the board, though that's not to say that the cost of buying isn't prohibitive. York simply needs more housing, particularly more affordable housing and a radical solution is required. There are two key issues: firstly, the more important one of people being forced to live in unsuitable conditions and simply being unable to afford the rents anywhere in the city; secondly, there is the question of maintaining the city's identity and the problem of new developments. However, to me it seems that finding a solution of the second issue will help solve the first.

If we look to what has happened within the city within the last ten years then it's been shiny new developments aimed primarily, it would seem, at young professionals. Given the cost of land and a free market then this is not surprising. The problem is that most of these developments have been poorly designed and planned – anyone who does not believe me should take a walk down Skeldergate (a couple of buildings still indicate what a beautiful street this was, although admittedly much of the damage was done over 50 years ago). Quite simply, most new developments in the city are architecturally bankrupt but this of course has been the case for the last 50 years. A city with such beautiful medieval, early modern, Georgian, and Victorian architecture needs modern architecture of the highest standard. Given York's reliance on the tourist industry, it is vital to maintain the integrity of the city.

Part of what makes York special is its size – it lacks suburban sprawl and one can easily walk to the city's edge from the centre. This means that the population density is already high – building up and building out are not viable options. There are definitely pockets of deprivation in the city and any local can tell you where these are, but of course they are not visible to the tourist, nor are they visible from the main routes in and out of the city. York's a wonderful place to visit and it's a wonderful place to live if you have the money, but as the Guardian article highlights, it's far less idyllic for those struggling to get by. I'm appalled by suggestions (in the comments section of that blog) that people should be forced to leave the city and move elsewhere. It may well be cheaper to live in Hull, Leeds, Selby, Bradford, Doncaster, or Scarborough but do people really imagine that 'economic cleansing' is justifiable? Plus how would the low-paid residents of York benefit from moving away from the city in which they work? I find it hard to believe that anyone would seriously suggest such measures. Only I don't find it that surprising given that it would seem to be government policy.

The solution I propose solution is hardly my own and relies on some neglected and misunderstood ideas about urban planning. York already boasts a garden village in New Earswick and needs to further embrace the principles of Ebenezer Howard. I would suggest a new settlement built just beyond the city's greenbelt with a good proportion of the properties being either classed affordable or social housing, but it must provide a mixture of accommodation and appeal across the economic spectrum – it also must be provided with the appropriate infrastructure to become a viable community in itself. Such a settlement should, like the city, be contained in size and I'd suggest a maximum of 30,000 in line with Howard's thinking. But it must also be a place where people chose to live and want to bring up their families – I suspect that the prospect of more space and cheaper prices will tempt plenty of people from the city itself. The design of settlement must be of the highest quality in terms of layout, architecture, and environmental impact – it should be a model for new developments. Building outside of the city would also ease congestion and a rail link must be built, or it must be situated close to existing lines.

I realise that I may be accused of hypocrisy given I'm suggesting that people will have to leave the city centre and move elsewhere. However, this solution is in no way intended to create a ghetto for those who can't afford to live in the city – rather an alternative for those who seek better living conditions or those who want a bigger house for their families. It would also allow people to remain within reach of their extended families if their roots are in the city. It may well be possible to meet some demand by building affordable housing in the city – both the 'teardrop' site near the station and Bootham Crescent are possible locations. However, I doubt these would be long-term solutions as they are very limited in size. I would propose strict limits on new building within the walls (and other limits without) and an end to the ugly and inappropriate developments that blight the city. Put simply, the population of the city cannot continue to increase continually without the integrity of the city being undermined, either through becoming a sprawling conurbation or by being overwhelmed by yet more blocks of flats.

I recognise that my suggestions involve watering down the principles of the garden city ideal, but (unfortunately) Howard's views on ownership would be derided as extreme socialis. Of course, I recognise how unlikely it is that such a project could ever come to fruition but I cannot see the situation described in the article improving unless drastic steps are taken. You have to ask yourself: what would Lewis Mumford do?

No comments:

Post a Comment