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Of Hopes and Homes

Neighbourhoods providing people with choice. Image © Voon Fui Lai.

The Evening Standard New Homes Awards 2014 highlighted the development industry’s response to a clarion call that’s been circulating about London: We need more homes. A possible housing shortage looms on the horizon. A 2013 paper by the London Councils’ think tank estimates that 809,000 homes will need to be built within London by 2021, while current projections indicate only 250,000 homes will be built by then. Needless to say, issues relating to overcrowding, affordability, homelessness, social mobility and other urban challenges are clear and present, as London’s population continues to grow.

As one of the reader panel judges at the 2014 New Homes Award, I was fascinated by the range and diversity of housing solutions presented. They ranged from family homes, first time buys, affordable homes, luxury homes, apartments, conversions, and retirement homes, to name but a few. Our panel struggled to choose a few winning schemes from the pool of worthy proposals. The selected winners reflect, in our opinion, the best in class for London’s numerous housing categories at present. But will they stand the test of time in fulfilling this global metropolis’ requirements for the future?

Homes encapsulate the aspirations of their occupiers. They manifest a physical expression of their civic and personal values. A critical mass of homes can form neighbourhoods that in turn, provide opportunities for work, education, leisure, and wellbeing, as well as shelter. Homes empower residents to achieve a healthy lifestyle balance.

In London, the city’s innate multi-cultural ethos goes even further by imbuing places with granular diversity and choice. This reinforces London’s standing as a worldly city comprised of distinctive neighbourhoods.

Image © Voon Fui Lai

London’s quest to build more homes rapidly could perversely diminish the character of these neighbourhoods, unless we incorporate economic, wellbeing and social cohesion opportunities in tandem. The Greater London Authority (GLA) estimates there 51,000 residential approvals issued in the last year alone. With neighbourhoods under pressure to deliver more homes within their jurisdictions, planning approvals for residential developments have been granted with little regard given to how they might impact local socio-economic issues.

This may be an opportunity for local social enterprises to increase their services and amenities offerings as London’s neighbourhoods grow. Creating appealing places to live requires communities that are invested in their neighbourhoods not only from a pecuniary perspective but an emotive one. The most appealing communities span generations and provide the formal and informal socio-economic capacity-building that reinforces our sense of equitable neighbourhoods. Residents want to feel safe, engaged, inspired and mutually supportive. We can see some of these ideas communicated in the political debate on Garden Cities and similar initiatives like the Wolfson Economic Prize.

Multi-generational residents require the schools, start-up businesses, child care, elderly care, parks and playgrounds, mixed-use high streets, restaurants, cafes and all the other amenities that make up a desirable liveable neighbourhood. The Royal Town Planning Institute’s latest 2014 Planning Horizons research paper addresses just that and although people generally rated their local area as a good place to live, 48 percent think that their local areas offer too few economic opportunities. Thirty percent think opportunities for economic development have worsened over the last five years, and a further 25 percent of people said they were likely to move elsewhere within the next five years.

Is the housing challenge just a numbers game? Is there more we should aspire to in creating attractive and innovative places to live, work and play? In the coming months, Gensler will be exploring a series of themes that incorporate our communities’ creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, wellbeing and aspirations into self-sustaining and characterful mixed-use residential neighbourhoods of the future.

Voon is a Regional Leader for Planning and Urban Design with significant experience across a variety of design disciplines including master planning, architecture, landscape design and interiors. He understands the strategic issues needed for a city to grow sustainably and develops clients’ initial ideas into effective robust solutions to successfully achieve their vision and to foster successful communities. He can be reached at voon_fui_lai@gensler.com

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