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Residential Development - ie More People to Turnaround Town Centres

posted 2 Jan 2012, 13:13 by George Grace   [ updated 10 Mar 2015, 13:49 ]

The positive contribution of residential development to high streets and town centres is often overlooked. Residents are frequent shoppers, helping to sustain the local day and night time economy spending many thousands of pounds more than visitors and tourists. Sustainability goals are also supported because large proportions of residents walk or cycle to their work place and other city centre attractions showing reduced reliance on the private car. Research indicates a resident population in which younger adults are the mainstay with a sizeable proportion of older adults, and an absence of households with children. Government sustainability aims of creating the truly balanced community which includes many children are probably challenging to say the least.

Numerous sources confirm the benefits for anything from neighbourhood to city centres of introducing more residential development. The renaissance of Melbourne’s city centre (currently considered to be the #1 most liveable city in the world according to The Economist) included an 800% increase in the decade to 2002. Over a similar period the UK, Manchester’s grew by nearly 300% (and has similarly been the recipient of city living and regeneration awards). In addition to the buzz and vitality, a populace living close to a centre can contribute very significant demand to support struggling businesses and services. In addition residents living so close to centres and by definition key public transport links will have a more sustainable footprint thanks to reduced reliance on cars.


Mid Rise Development is Enough

Its not necessary to build high rise towers (not that I have anything against them personally other than from a sustainability perspective). Mid rise – ie 4-6 storey blocks plus mansards will add significant residential numbers to many traditional high streets that are predominantly ground floor shops with a single storey above. Who wouldn't want to live in an upper floor apartment in the Latin Quarter, Paris.

Many it would seem when the debate gets going in the UK, however the reasons are opaque given that according to the 2001 Census, families (two adults plus one or more child) made up one in five of households and are falling At the same time, the housing stock in England comprised 80 percent houses, 19 percent flats. Thus demand for city centre apartment living should be strong. It seems the reason perhaps is more down to the quality of buildings and place created by new mid and high rise development in the UK. Personally I do not think we should be copying the aesthetic styles of bygone ages but we certainly have something to learn from their masterplans - research shows that traditional Georgian Block pattern of design (in the City of the Westminster) easily achieves a ‘Gold’ rating sustainability requirements (eg LEED-ND) and demand (if this is defined by willingness to be the highest prices) is greater in London's 4-6 storey neighbourhoods than anywhere else in the country.

High Rise Towers?

Taller buildings are an increasingly common sight where land is expensive, usually the centres of big cities, because they provide such a high ratio of floor space per unit area of land. They are also built like palaces of the past as a symbol of a city's ‘power’ – think the City of London. However in sustainability terms the amount of steel, concrete and glass needed to construct a skyscraper is vast. Tall skyscrapers are very heavy, clearly they must be built on a firmer foundations than would be required for shorter, lighter buildings. Towers are big energy users because water must be pumped to the highest occupied floors, and most skyscrapers are designed to be air-conditioned, rely on lifts and require artificial lighting to the inner/darker parts. In the lower levels more structure is needed to support more floors above and the same principles apply to elevators and building services. 

The more positive aspects of increasing density is to encourage walking to the corner to grab groceries…what can you get within walking distance, without ever using a car? That’s the question that drives the economy of dense urban streets. Expensive transit systems and small, local retail are less feasible without higher density living surrounding it. Generally most research indicates mid-sized buildings perform best with most commentators agreeing things become decidedly less green above 5-7 stories. Beyond the sustainability argument most great places tend to have a predominant 5-7 story pattern rather than a city of towers (compare Georgian London or Paris with Dubai for example). More at www.greenbuildingsalive.com 

Smart Growth

Arguments in favour of higher density living are best articulated by the smart growth movement. 

'Health, schools, taxes, traffic, the environment, economic growth, fairness, opportunity—many of the things we care about—are all affected by development decisions. From the length of our daily commute to the price of a new home to the safety of our neighborhoods - what, where, and how we build have major impacts on our personal lives, our communities, and our nation. Growth presents a tremendous opportunity for progress. Communities are looking for ways to get the most out of new development and to maximize their investments. Frustrated by development that requires residents to drive long distances between jobs and homes, many communities are challenging rules that make it impossible to put workplaces, homes, and services closer together. Many communities are questioning the fiscal wisdom of neglecting existing infrastructure while expanding new sewers, roads, and services into the fringe. And in many communities where development has improved daily life, the economy, and the environment, smart growth principles have been key to that success. 

'Growth is "smart" when it gives us great communities, with more choices and personal freedom, good return on public investment, greater opportunity across the community, a thriving natural environment, and a legacy we can be proud to leave our children and grandchildren. When communities choose smart growth strategies, they can create new neighborhoods and maintain existing ones that are attractive, convenient, safe, and healthy. They can foster design that encourages social, civic, and physical activity. They can protect the environment while stimulating economic growth. Most of all, we can create more choices for residents, workers, visitors, children, families, single people, and older adults-choices in where to live, how to get around, and how to interact with the people around them. When communities do this kind of planning, they preserve the best of their past while creating a bright future for generations to come.'

More at http://www.smartgrowth.org/why.php

In addition to providing extra demand to ensure the survival of local high streets and centres a further reason to support the right sort of 'smart development' and densification are the some of the side benefits to communities if the development process is handled properly. For example through ‘section 106’ and ‘New Homes Bonus’ payments a very significant fund could be set up to be spent on improvements to the local neighbourhood ranging from new street furniture to new schools etc. 

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