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A tale of two developments: why new planning reforms threaten to entrench unsustainable lifestyles

This blog by Steve Chambers, sustainable transport campaigner at Transport for New Homes, was first published by as a guest blog by Green Alliance.

In 2018, Transport for New Homes produced an initial report that revealed the deep flaws in the planning system which leave new housing developments with inadequate walking, cycling and public transport connections to surrounding areas. With limited facilities locally, residents are, for the most part, forced into car dependency.

With lockdown starting to ease in England, we wanted to find out how some of the communities we featured in that report had been getting on over the past year. We visited two new developments in the west of England: Castlemead on the edge of Trowbridge and Bath Riverside in the centre of Bath. How had the developments influenced the lifestyles of residents? Were they delightful and sustainable places to live? And, if not, why not?

Castlemead, Trowbridge

Castlemead is part of large ongoing development on the edge of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, adjacent to the planned Ashton Park urban extension. The context is a series of large distributor roads and roundabouts. Castlemead has one of these roads going right through it: a developer funded bypass for Trowbridge.

Planning permission for both Castlemead and Ashton Park has been plagued by difficulties, including the need to ‘mitigate’ the impact on several bat species, such as the very rare Bechstein bat which has a maternity roost in woodland right next to the developments. In fact, some roads in Castlemead are named in memory of the bats affected, such as Bechstein Meadow and Pipistrelle Crescent.

Castlemead roundaboutCastlemead is too far from the centre of town to be walkable for some people. It is one and half miles to the main shopping district and two miles to the railway station. There is one pedestrian route into Trowbridge but this is not safe in the dark, without pavements for some stretches. Furthermore, once they reach the town, pedestrians need to negotiate a large dual carriageway inner ring road. Walking and cycling are not supported by ‘end-to-end’ infrastructure.

This development is designed around car use with no front gardens because space has been given over to parking. Some homes also have very small back gardens for the same reason. Car based living is necessary because, other than the primary school and a single convenience store, there is nowhere you can easily go without a car. Indeed, even the convenience store is just off a roundabout with a parking area encouraging even local shoppers to visit using their cars. Bus services are also infrequent and inconveniently timed which rules out using public transport for evenings and weekends out.

Castlemead parkingOur research found that residents’ cars are outgrowing the spots provided for them, which means they are encroaching on the pavements and further reducing space for walkers. Tellingly, we didn’t see anyone on foot on the residential roads which must have made it a very isolated place during the pandemic.

How might planning have improved this place? With more homes intended for the area, it is getting closer to the scale that might support a shop or other amenities. But upcoming planning reforms look like they will make it much harder for councils to designate land for general use class E, which covers most local services. Changes to permitted development rights could end up with estates of housing with nowhere at all to shop, work or play, also adding to the pressures on established schools, doctors’ surgeries and other facilities in the nearby town and necessitating car journeys to reach them.

Bath Riverside

Bath RiversideOver the border in Somerset is Bath Riverside. This is another development that was in its early stages when we reported in 2018 and is now substantially complete. About half a mile from the shopping district at the centre of town and 0.8 miles from the railway station, it is immediately apparent that location is everything. It is well within walking distance of the centre.

But what is noticeably different about Bath Riverside is the provision of amenities within the development. What was once a restaurant will reopen post-lockdown as a shared workspace, charging by the day. We found cafes, outdoor gyms, good quality public space, public art and places to sit in the shade. Good sized trees and flower beds have been planted. Many amenities had been added since our last visit, transforming the place.

There were many people travelling on foot, with lots of places to go, even despite lockdown restrictions, both within the development and just beyond.

The development does have some shortcomings. An unnecessary amount of space has been given over to car parking, possibly due to parking standards. This means entrances to homes are being obstructed by cars. That said, thought has been given to minimising the impact of parking with several attempts to hide it away, including underground.

Bath RiversideBath Riverside is a world away from Castlemead. And many of its best public realm improvements, including integration with the existing city, have come about because of planning conditions and mitigations. Without those tools this development could have been very different.

Upcoming reforms threaten to jeopardise such important planning provisions. For instance, the recently released model design code will do little to prevent the car dominance we found at both these estates. The reforms don’t deal with anything as substantive.

Changes to permitted development rights of use class E could also risk the ability to include the cafes and coworking spaces we saw at Bath Riverside. We hope not. The density of Bath Riverside means there are enough people to support these types of businesses which benefit from it being a walkable place.

So, where, out of these two developments, would a family choose to live? The car dependent sprawl of Castlemead or the walkable liveability of Bath Riverside? Sadly, for reasons of affordability and the lack of suitable family sized units in Bath, car dependent Castlemead is a far more likely option.

Instead, we should be building housing in the most sustainable locations in existing towns, where walking and cycling are the natural choice to get around. It would be a grave mistake, both for liveability and our need to become a low carbon society, for planning reforms to make it easier to build car dependent sprawl, far from places of work and other facilities, than to aid sustainable living. From what we’ve seen of the government’s proposals so far, we are at risk of taking the wrong path.

Transport for New Homes is crowdfunding for its Homes Without Jams campaign that works to influence the government’s planning reforms, making the case for a green transport future for new homes. It also supported the development of Green Alliance’s briefing ‘Ensuring investment in transport through the Infrastructure Levy‘.

So, what else could we build?

In our recent report, Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions and Reality, we explain that, although the visions for garden communities are often very good, we fear ‘business as usual’. Rather than enabling people to walk, cycle and use public transport to go about their daily lives, these developments will generate high levels of traffic by condemning their residents to car-dependent lifestyles. Local shops, cafes and other amenities will fail to materialise because people will just get in their cars and drive off!

This is because new homes are often built in the wrong locations, and without consideration of the very important role that transport plays in shaping a place.

In this blog we set out to demonstrate some of the things that our report talks about by using a sequence of annotated images from Google Maps, and to show different ways that settlements have been planned, both in the UK and beyond.

1. How it's done today: the 'urban extension'
2. New development around a garden town
3. A future garden village
4. Mixed development and walkability
5. Vibrant community with excellent public transport
6. New place from scratch for 45,000 people
7. A completely new large town with dedicated busway, new railway stations and extensive cycle network
8. Almeer, continued
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These are just some examples – we are very interested in any others. We invite readers to contact us with any other examples of good and bad practice that could be added to our discussion.

By Jenny Raggett, Project Coordinator

Royal Arsenal Riverside

Transport for New Homes Award: Royal Arsenal Riverside

Royal Arsenal Riverside was announced as winner of the Transport for New Homes Award 2019 in the metropolitan category. Judge Tim Pharoah, who visited the development, tells us why.

London needs many more homes, and high-density developments are required. At Woolwich Arsenal, the impact of tall blocks is lessened by the generous provision of open spaces and pedestrian only walkways. The riverfront location also provides a dramatic setting for the new residential buildings. A further advantage is the presence of many preserved 18th Century buildings from the days when the Arsenal was a major location for the manufacture and testing of guns and other military hardware. These old buildings give the area a special character, while the cannon that remain dotted around the site provide popular play equipment for children.

Despite the large scale – there are already more than 1,700 homes completed with many more on the way – there has not been a focus on catering for a significant increase in traffic. The expectation is that people mostly will use public transport, walking and cycling to get about.

So often, the marketing blurb for new housing schemes turns out to be optimistic or even downright misleading. But Berkeley Homes seem to have struck the right note when they say: “With extensive river frontage, a landscaped park and unrivalled travel connections, Waterfront III at Royal Arsenal Riverside puts you at the centre of everything that is great about living in London. Plus with an outstanding choice of amenities already on your doorstep, local life here could not be more convenient.” There is nothing to disagree with here.

The public transport available within an easy walk is truly staggering, with national rail, Docklands Light Rail and 11 bus routes passing the site. Bus frequency is more than one every minute in each direction! In addition, the development is facilitating the delivery of a new Crossrail station within the site, expected to open in late 2020 or early 2021. As if this weren’t enough, the site is also served by the Thames Clipper riverboat service to the City and West End, running at least half hourly through the day and late into the evening.

The Thames cycle path goes through the development, offering a traffic-free route east and west, and secure cycle parking is available for residents, although cycle parking for visitors is sparse.

Royal Arsenal Riverside

With all this transport, one might be tempted to leave Woolwich Arsenal, but it is also an attractive and convenient place to stay in. Whether relaxing by the water, playing with the kids in one of the safe green spaces, or catching up on some laptop work in one of the cafes, the development provides a lot of facilities and a very interesting environment.

I spoke to a couple with their two young children, who had been living there for a year. “We absolutely love it here, and the kids do too. We wouldn’t consider living anyway else now.” And do you have a car? “Yes, but we hardly ever use it. The cost of the parking garage is quite high, and we might try to sell it on when the kids are grown up.” (Parking spaces are £25,000 freehold)

Most of the parking is tucked away underground, leaving the ground level more or less traffic free, and making it safe and quiet to wander. There are car club vehicles and electric vehicle charging on site.

Given the low volume of vehicle movement, it is strange that some of the detailed street design is not geared to the pedestrian. For example at side streets, the dropped kerb crossing point is offset, requiring pedestrians to divert. Of course no-one does, and so people walk in the road. So often it is the highway engineering details that let a scheme down.

In high-density developments especially, open space has to be carefully designed and managed. The quality of landscaping at Woolwich Arsenal has already been recognised by picking up the inaugural award for landscape at the Sunday Times British Homes Awards.

Overall, Woolwich Arsenal Riverside development is a bold and imaginative regeneration project, providing a wide range of housing with excellent sustainable transport facilities. For many if not most of the residents, the car would seem to be redundant!

Responsible for Royal Arsenal Riverside:
Developer: Berkeley Homes (East Thames)
Architects: Allies and Morrison
Planning consultants: Barton Willmore
Transport planning consultants: URS
Council: Royal Borough of Greenwich

New Checklist to help root out car-dependent housing developments

In the rush to build new homes, too many estates are being built without public transport, local facilities or even pavements, leading to car dependence, congestion, pollution and unhealthy lifestyles. Now Transport for New Homes, a campaign group seeking to halt the spread of such car-based development, has produced a Checklist to enable local authorities, neighbourhood groups and others to easily identify housing plans that are likely to result in car-dependent lifestyles.

Conversely, the Checklist will help good housing plans to gain recognition for giving residents real, sustainable travel choices.

The lead author of the Checklist, Tim Pharoah of Transport for New Homes, said:

“Our country desperately needs more homes, but these must be located and designed to ensure that residents do not need cars to live a full life. Our visits to recent housing developments around the country revealed that too many had been built around car use. When housing is built on green fields, far from jobs, shops and services, with inadequate public transport and poor pedestrian and cycle links, residents are forced to drive for almost every journey.

“With traffic and air pollution blighting neighbourhoods, and transport being the UK’s main contributor to climate change, banishing the scourge of car-dependent housing is long overdue.”

Developed with input from bodies representing planning and transport professionals, as well as planners, academics and neighbourhood groups, the Checklist identifies, under ten broad headings, elements that make up a non-car-dependent housing development. These include:

  • A location within or closely connected to an existing settlement that has a clear centre
  • A welcoming environment, not dominated by car parking
  • Local facilities easily accessible without a car
  • Frequent public transport services in place from Day 1 of occupation

By considering each of these criteria, users of the Checklist can rate a housing plan as either Red, Amber or Green for how well it will avoid car-dependency.

Lynda Addison OBE FCIHT MTPS, Chair of the CIHT Sustainable Transport Panel, said:

“CIHT welcomes this important contribution to the radical changes needed in the way that homes and transport are designed to ensure that people can chose to live healthier and more active lives as part of their daily routine. This complements the forthcoming advice on ‘Better planning, better transport, better places’ that is about to be published by CIHT in partnership with TPS and the RTPI.”

Written without jargon, the Transport for New Homes Checklist is intended for use by local authorities, developers and neighbourhood groups alike to root out car-dependent housing plans. The Checklist will help to identify how such plans can be improved, or why they should be rejected altogether. The Checklist can also be applied to developments that have already been built so that lessons can be learnt.