Managing historic suburbs conference
Creating a new dynamic for historic suburbs
The IHBC North West Branch conference at StockportTown Hall, supported by English Heritage, focused on suburbs - where the majority of Britain’s population lives. Here we report on just a few of the conference’s highlights.
The development of suburbs in the 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the UK’s major contributions to town planning. Although a distinctive element in the character of towns, often designated as conservation areas and popular places to live, suburbs face threats due to demographic shifts, changing lifestyles and economic pressures leading to an erosion of character.
rachel Walmsley of the Town and Country Planning Association noted that a study by the Civic Trust in 1998 reported that 86 per cent of the population lived in them. Increasing social, economic and environmental problems would require sensitive analysis, recognising the different types and their varying relationships to the central town or city.
Colum giles of English Heritage was concerned with evaluating ‘the spacious suburb’, whose problems were similar to those of conservation areas. Their strong sense of identity can be threatened by change. National pressures to use brownfield sites lead to the piecemeal intensive use of urban space. English Heritage will be providing guidance in early 2006 on the sustainability, local identity and character preservation of historic suburbs, to produce an array of management mechanisms which can be adapted to local and economic circumstances.
That vision depends on evaluation, using different methodologies to assess cumulative change and the underlying causes. Historic area characterisation, although broad brush and covering large areas, can expose the differences in types of suburb. The EH guidance will espouse a question-led approach to evaluation, to provide contextual understanding and statements of significance on such matters as landscape, road patterns, house types and layout and pre-existing features.
It is difficult to come to judgements on threatened suburbs using historic environment criteria alone. The value
placed on them depends also on residents’ evanescent associations, memory and family cycles. A form of village design statement, as promoted by the Countryside Commission, can help to develop the link between people and places. Care and appreciation by residents is the most important factor in preserving character while allowing change.
Harold Baxter presented an architect’s view of development in historic suburban areas in Stockport. In a series of case studies he demonstrated a developing consciousness of fitting
strategy for dealing with housebuilder depredations in historic suburbs. Councillors’ consciousness had been raised by awards for contemporary buildings in the city centre following the IrA bomb of 1996.The councillors went against officer advice on five major schemes in the suburbs involving the demolition of existing buildings. Winning all the appeals at public inquiries, assisted by Warren’s evidence, gave members the confidence to take a more proactive role in protecting their suburbs.
Spotlisting delays and the lack of certainty of local listing (now being abandoned by Leeds, for instance) led to councillors deciding to double the number of conservation areas by designating another 29 in the suburbs. They were not chocolate-box areas but they did provide a consistent character. Six have been designated in 20 months. In one case this has caused significant investment by the Manchester NW partnership in alleygating, property assistance and preserving back-alley setts.
Nick Dodd explained how UrBED had explored the dynamics of suburbs. A City of Villages study for the greater London Authority indicated that older suburbs were at risk from new edge-city clusters where cheaper space, wider access to skilled staff and better communications were leading to strong investment. Suburbs were at risk due to changing lifestyles, the need to conserve energy and social exclusion.
Dodd pointed to the need to reinforce the role of local centres, protect and support suburban employment, and promote travel alternatives to the car and improvements to the public realm. fostering opportunities for housing intensification and balancing energy efficiency with maintenance of character would be substantial challenges for the planning system.
At the micro scale the tools used in preserving and enhancing conservation areas can be adapted to the wider spread of suburbs, although with less planning control. The wide typology of suburbs and their great spatial diffusion means that the intensive approaches to the inner city of the recent past will rarely apply. Planning policy and management mechanisms will need a subtler hue. Graham Arnold
Don’t mess with Britain’s suburbs.
new developments in a suburban location of strong character. His first essays were dominated by clients’ ideas of shoehorning detached houses into redevelopment plots. from flats with roof terraces cut out of sloping roofs at the rear he progressed to a terrace of four-storey town houses with conservatory and roof garden. The mass and design fitted the street scene better.
Baxter’s latest project of replacing a six-bed house with eight apartments and basement parking with the appearance of an original larger house was caught by regional spatial strategy restrictions on new housing outside core areas. His firm is now investigating extensive sheltered housing for local needs over a 1960s shopping complex to enhance the central core of the suburb and sustain the economic life of its local centre.
Warren Marshall of Manchester City Council explained his authority’s