Since I posted on sustainable suburbs a couple of months ago, I’ve been alerted to the Forum for the Future’s seminar on the same subject. The main themes were about density and connectivity. The seminar report is a little bald; James Goodman’s blog post gives a more rounded flavour.

Sir Peter Hall, Richard Rogers, Chris Leslie of the Local Government Association, and David North of Tesco (who were sponsors) were on the panel. Lord Rogers’ contribution was also posted to YouTube.

A couple of points worth picking up from the blog post:

  • he says that a relatively small amount of in-filling in the suburbs – of the order of four people per hectare – could accommodate all of the anticipated population growth over the next forty years, without having to build on any greenfield sites. This seems to me to be quite a radical reframing of the ‘more housing’ debate, currently completely dominated by the discourse of relatively large-scale planning-led intervention embedded in the Barker Review and the “growth areas” of the ‘Sustainable Communities Plan‘ (which, as has been observed, isn’t sustainable, is unlikely to create communities, and is barely a plan.)
  • Secondly, he has a nice idea about “the suburbs as resilience” – as the location of allotments, micro-reservoirs, water meadows, and public spaces – to help deal with some of the risks faced by cities. You can add biodiversity to his list as well.

I’ve been talking about density quite a lot recently, partly in connection with a project about the future of the built environment, and have found that people find it hard to imagine what living at different densities feels like. 50 dwellings per hectare (which offers gardens and detached houses) is associated in people’s minds with crowded space, and even high-rise living – although, paradoxically, high-rises are usually lower density. This seems to represent a policy problem, since to create change people need to be able to visualise what the change would be like.

The other obstacle is that the suburb is now associated completely with the car. But it wasn’t always thus. Chris Luebkeman of Arup, with whom I shared a panel at the London Transport Museum, pointed out there that the first suburbs were built before the age of widespread car ownership, and were the products of good public transport. As Jim Dator once observed, one of the elements of the future is those ideas which existed in the past, and will re-emerge in the future, but which have been submerged in the present.