An interview with the founder of housebuilder Redrow has been floating around in my drafts as a potential basis for a post for a while. It caught my attention because it touched upon residential streets and how they should be designed – and in particular, how we should address the issue of designing motor traffic out of residential streets (through traffic, that is – motor traffic should still be able to access residential properties).
The Dutch approach to road design – Sustainable Safety – is quite explicit that roads and streets should have a single function, with a principle of Monofunctionality. As Mark Wagenbuur explains, in a joint post on David Hembrow’s site –
To the Dutch the most ideal situation is when roads and streets have only one single purpose. To achieve this mono-functionality a hierarchy of roads was introduced.
- Through Roads for high volumes of fast traffic on longer distances.
- Local Access Roads from which end destinations can be reached.
- Distributor Roads which connect through roads and local access roads.
All Dutch streets and roads have been classified (under a legal obligation) and are or will be re-designed to the Sustainable Safety principles by the road managers. This led to areas where people stay (residential areas and areas for shopping/sporting/theatre etc.) and designated space used for the flow of traffic in order to transport people from A to B. Under the Dutch vision these functions cannot be mixed.
It is this approach that explains why Dutch roads and streets work so well for all users. In particular, access roads are designed to have low levels of motor traffic, meaning they are safe and attractive.
Strangely enough, it is this detail that is touched upon in the interview with Steve Morgan of Redrow. I’ve highlighted the relevant passage in bold.
House builder Steve Morgan has hit out at housing designed to meet the “urbanist” principles promoted under New Labour’s now defunct Richard Rogers-inspired planning guidance.
In an interview with BD’s sister publication Building, Steve Morgan, the founder of Redrow who rejoined the business in 2009 when it hit difficulties in the credit crunch, said that the housebuilder’s adherence to PPG3-style design was one of the main problems with the firm and hailed the return of the cul-de-sac.
Redrow had been building high-rise flats available at low cost but Morgan has subsequently completely redesigned the firm’s product range around traditional homes with arts & craft movement-inspired detailing, arranged in cul-de-sacs.
Morgan told Building: “We’ve got to start producing the type of housing that people want to live in, not some theoretical designs with ‘permeability’ all over the bloody place, which actually means traffic. Who wants tarmac all over a development? I want cul de sacs, green spaces, safe spaces for children to play in – not permeability, that’s just bullshit jargon.”
PPG3 was introduced under the tenure of deputy prime minister John Prescott and was inspired by the conclusions of Rogers’ Urban Task Force. It recommended higher-density developments to make public transport viable and create street life based around “walkable” neighbourhoods. But house builders said it resulted in building a large number of developments of flats without gardens which became very hard to sell when the credit crunch hit.
Morgan added: “It seemed to take forever to convince planners that PPG3 was history and we had to get on and build traditional housing again. It probably took the best part of three years. They have got the message now. Absolutely nobody’s doing PPG3-type development anymore but it took a while to get that through.
“We had highways engineers quoting the manual for streets and all the rest of it. [I] said, ‘Bollocks, bring the cul de sacs back, bring the type of housing that people want to live in back’.”
This is, I suspect, some fairly self-serving rhetoric from a developer with an interest in building low density (and therefore more expensive) housing, rather than higher density (and therefore more affordable) flats and housing. And it also comes from the perspective of someone who it seems can only imagine people moving around by car; permeability can work (and indeed should work) in residential areas, provided it is permeability of a specific kind, for walking and cycling.
But the passage I’ve highlighted is revealing – it shows that housebuilders are more than aware that the general public don’t want to live on traffic-clogged streets. They want to live on streets where their children can play safely; where there isn’t a huge amount of tarmac required to facilitate the through-flow of motor traffic; where there is green space.
Popular streets to live on are those that are quiet and safe; unpopular ones are those that are noisy, polluted, and dominated by motor traffic.
Given all this, it is surprising why proposals to close residential streets to through traffic often meet with such vociferous opposition from the people who live on them, on the grounds that the journeys they will make by car will become marginally longer – perhaps only a few hundred metres or so.
Because, with a free choice, the vast majority of people will choose to live on a street that is (effectively) a cul de sac to motor traffic rather than a through route, even if that means their car journeys are slightly indirect. The benefits of living somewhere nice outweigh the benefits of straight-line car routes.
So what’s going on? How do we explain this discrepancy between the choices people actually make, and the difficulties in ‘converting’ a poorly-designed street into an environment people would choose to live on in the first place?
My guess is that the benefits of a street being closed to through traffic can’t easily be appreciated – residents can only imagine their street as it is now, but with a bit of extra inconvenience for motoring trips, rather than imagining a safer, quieter and more pleasant street, one they easily would have chosen to live on, given a blank slate.
An interesting way of tackling this issue might be come at it from the opposite direction – to conduct a survey of streets that (by accident or design) only serve an access function in a given British town or city. My idea would be to ask the residents on these streets whether they would prefer their street to be opened up as a through route – ‘filtered permeability in reverse’. To ask them whether they would be prepared to trade off the attractiveness of their street for more direct car journeys, but with a (potentially large) increase in motor traffic on their street.
Maybe there aren’t any easy answers though – human beings are fundamentally conservative, and dislike change, even if the benefits can be presented in an attractive and easily understandable way, and even if the benefits come to be appreciated by residents who were initially opposed. I suspect the only concrete way of making progress is councils taking bold decisions, in the form of trial closures of a suitably long duration for the benefits to appear.