Good Design and the Green Belt
Whilst section 9 of the National Planning Policy Framework may set out to protect green belt land, the pressure to release these spaces is at an all-time high, for no other reason than new homes must be built.
Whether or not you believe the green belt should be released, if it does happen, don’t you agree there is an opportunity to rethink the design of new homes to ensure its release is a positive benefit and not a blight on the existing homes and community nearby?
In this article, I am seeking to establish if the release of green belt land would be more acceptable if more radical design criteria were applied; criteria that worked with the landscape itself, as well as the people who may inhabit it, from the infrastructure through to simply better household storage solutions.
Hardscape and Infrastructure
A typical housing scheme will comprise of acres of tarmac, pavements and driveways, assuming that every house owner must have immediate access to a car (or two) right outside of their home.
However, what if things were to change?
For example, one of the key features of Center Parcs, a European network of holiday villages, is the insistence that cars are left in the car park, and the beauty of the forest (where the parcs are built) is enjoyed on bicycle or on foot. Before you all groan at the thought of leaving your beloved car at the gateway to a housing development, just think about it for a while. Whilst the car is an essential part of rural commuting; the school run, the trip to the shops or the dash down the motorway, what if the last mile meant a simple transfer to an electric vehicle, dotted around your housing development, from a place of shared ownership or the central car park, to get you to your home?
Another UK-based example is Soho House, where a 'no car policy' is embraced and works well. Instead of cars, not only the use of bikes is encouraged, but old milk floats are used for communal transport within the site, as well as for deliveries. Many people happily adopt this form of living for a holiday, so with good design and an efficient service, could if not be expanded for the full 52 weeks of the year?
If your car remains in a central car park, safe and secure, only small pathways for golf-buggy style vehicles are needed to ferry residents to and from home. No cars are parked on a drive or in the roads (…there will be no need for roads) and instead there will be plenty of safe areas for children to cycle and play.
If that one design principle could be adopted by housebuilders, acres of tarmac would be redundant and many design opportunities open up. The Center Parcs idea has worked since its conception back in 1953 in the Netherlands – so why can’t this basic concept work more broadly?
Six-feet high panelled fences are the developers ‘quick fix’ for the demarcation of the territory we know as the back garden. However, is there any point moving to what used to be beautiful green belt land, to a home that then stares at a 6ft high fence? Privacy maybe an issue, but clever and innovative design can provide privacy without carving the land into individual gardens.
A communal garden is another solution and can be a benefit to those who enjoy the open space, but who do not want the hassle of mowing the lawn each week.
Building Height and Density
The need to release the green belt, which was there originally to protect urban sprawl, presents the conundrum of how to design houses with the minimal impact or scar on the land that was, before consent was granted, open fields. Is it the impossible?
Some believe ‘village life’ works because of the close buildings, close community and high-density design. Others have a view that the plot sizes should be larger and the dwellings should stay limited to single storey. In spite of these views, the biggest influence is the land value. The price is determined by what the developer can squeeze in. However, if this is set and controlled before the site in the green belt is released then the land values will adjust and homebuilders will bid accordingly, knowing exactly how much they can build. Remember the windfall is usually going to a landowner and the land had little value before the consent to build is granted. It just represents less of a windfall, not a loss, and a project that becomes unviable.
If the design criteria is then strict, like in a conservation area, numbers of houses can be restricted, styles, heights of buildings and plots sizes can be clearly specified and the land will be ‘protected’ and developed in a way which enhances it, rather than damages it.
A person’s housing needs changes with time. From the first-time buyers’ apartment to a larger family home and, then, the inevitable downsizing. Bungalows still serve a purpose, but because of the inefficient and less profitable use of land, bungalows rarely appear on the masterplan. However, their use on green belt land will be valuable for maintaining the beauty of the horizon, being low in height. Furthermore, if designed well, is there not more scope for them to become a ‘home for life’? Large enough to accommodate a family, but efficient enough for them to remain economical in later years?
Garage Space vs Storage Space
It is not unreasonable to expect a family of four to need four vehicles at some point in time. Building four garages would seem excessive. Interestingly, experience shows that whatever garage space is built, inevitably some of that space is usually used for storage, whether that is for bicycles, garden furniture, garden tools, etc.
Given this situation, it has to be time to rethink storage space. In the green belt, it would be even more important to get it right. Practical, but without impinging on the landscape. We currently live in a world in which many people have to rely on separate entities entirely for their storage solutions, such as storage units within industrial sheds. Granted this is sometimes for only a temporary period, such as a move, but there are instances when it is for a longer term. Furthermore, these huge sheds are on brown field sites, which could one day be used for housing, if better individual storage solution could be incorporated in to new developments.
A basement would seem the logical start for a storage solution. The ideal location for a hobby room or workshop. Admittedly, this can be an expensive part of a development. However, I once stayed in a Swiss chalet with a series of communal underground nuclear bunkers, all of which were used to store cycles and skis. They were warm, dry and well- ventilated, perfect for storing equipment and far better than a shed! Therefore, is it not worth investing in?
If pitched roofs must be included in a housing scheme, then it is vital that the loft space should be clear and practical, to provide another location for decent space for storage. Otherwise, the volume of the pitched roof is just reducing the openness of the green belt, by adding one storey of architectural ‘aesthetic’, for no reason than to let rain run off a building. We need to consider more to ensure design enables better storage solutions throughout the home.
The government recognise the desire for people to work from home: less commuting and more productivity. However, the interaction with other team members is stifled and people often report that they actually like working together, for company, to help discourage distractions (from TV and the fridge!) and the opportunity to ‘get out of the house’.
A green belt development provides a fantastic opportunity to include an ‘on-site business hub’. Allowing homeowners to work locally in a designated space, encouraging community spirit, but still ensuring no need for commuting. It will also allow all to have access to an appropriate working environment, for example, good lighting, sturdy desks, proper ergonomic chairs, good internet, printers and filing cabinets. There are concerns regarding privacy, hot-desking and appropriateness for some professions, but this does not have to stand in the way, if private spaces were also included. There are ‘work hubs’ that are working well across the country. And there are also plenty more people working in their local cafes for want of a bit of company and a change of scenery, who would no doubt support this opportunity!
I understand that the development of green belt land is always a controversial topic and many will argue for urban regeneration and recycling derelict and other urban sites, before ever considering anything else. However, if…and when…the time comes, is it not better to have debated and discussed the possibilities and opportunities of good design to help complement any development?
I have made only a few suggestions (also summarised below) but I am keen to hear more and to know your thoughts.
Central parking and ‘last mile’ shared transport for deliveries and car loading/unloading.
Open garden designs, including purpose built communal spaces for shared enjoyment
Create a new land category that has stricter design criteria for the proposed scheme and any future development.
Single storey buildings, designed without large pitched roofs and sheds, but in-built storage solutions, including basements and loft spaces.
Meeting home office requirements with communal facilities.
Get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author
Guy Middleton is a Chartered surveyor and environmental engineer, and Managing Director of the H4 Group, serving the property industry for over 20 years. Guy is a town councillor at Edenbridge Town Council in Sevenoaks, Kent, an area surrounded by green belt land. He is passionate about environmentally complementary design and engineering.
All images used are the CGI artwork of H4 Group.