A tumbled country

Most new housing in England is being designed without any character or sense of identity. LDA Design’s Ian Houlston and Dr Stephen Carter of Headland Archaeology argue that there’s no excuse for creating  ‘non places’.

England has a rich diversity of landscapes, each one a record of how people have shaped their environment over generations. Interpreting them is a science that started 70 years ago with The Making of the English Landscape by W G Hoskins, where he talked of “a tumbled country with few large tracts of sameness”.

Much of this extraordinary diversity, formed over generations shaping their environment, is being eroded. A depressing national audit recently found that the design of new housing developments in England is overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’, lacking personality and sense of place.

Predictably enough in a society riven with inequalities, less affluent communities are ten times more likely to suffer.

A place is a location with a meaning, but only if it is well-designed. The place where you live governs your chances of leading the active and sociable life that you need to be healthy. So, for example, new development which is connected to nothing but the road network forces you to rely on the car, and in the process stops the chance of genuine social interaction which leads to the creation of community.

It is true that placemaking can feel easier in some areas than others. The housing audit found that design generally worsens as sites get further from an urban core. But every site is a patchwork and a distillation of all previous landscapes and environments. Working together, archaeologists and landscape professionals can analyse sites to reveal the traditions, crafts and associations that can add depth to the planning and design of new development. 




Good ancestors

A good example is the planning of the new settlement at Waterbeach New Town East, which is north of Cambridge in the Fenlands. The landscape and historic environment teams worked to understand the original land use patterns and preserve them in the masterplan. 

So the alignment of an ancient ditch and drove road, dating to before the drainage of the Fens, is retained as a principal walking and cycling route, wildlife corridor and sustainable drainage through the new development. The teams identified the most authentic transition between the new town and the countryside, with new Fenland Parks. These will evoke the pre-drainage fenland landscape of medieval times and provide the perfect setting for the ancient Denny Abbey adjacent to the site.

Existing view of the meandering Bannold Drove, a route which pre-dates the draining of the Fens
A transformed Bannold Drove will be central to life in Waterbeach New Town East

We are on the cusp of enormous change across the UK, which will affect the unique character of diverse landscapes and communities. The audit has exposed how much we are also at risk of just perpetuating the misery of non places. The Oxford-Cambridge Arc alone, for example is planned to see the construction of up to one million homes by 2050.

To reinforce local identity, rather than erode it, initiatives at this kind of scale need a big vision and high standards of planning and design. At the core of this is understanding the past better, in order to deliver a good legacy. As Robert MacFarlane puts it, “…to be good ancestors”.*


The full version of this article features in the spring edition of the Landscape Institute’s Journal [p24-27]. 

* Robert MacFarlane, (2019) Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Header image copyright Place Alliance

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