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Good news for housing

By Jo Watkins
The entries to this year’s Housing Design Awards show a generally encouraging approach to landscape.
We discuss how much things have improved, and how much more is needed, and focus on one of the most delightful schemes.

There is a story that in 1946 Nye Bevan made a speech to Parliament at 2pm setting up the National Health Service, and at 4pm he made another speech announcing the Housing Design Awards. Championed subsequently by both Labour and Conservatives (Macmillan was a big fan), the awards were a recognition that it wasn’t just a co-incidence that people who lived in squalid housing conditions tended to get sick more often than those who didn’t.

We know there is a relationship between health and environment, but sometimes society is too lazy or too myopic to do anything about it. The Landscape Institute’s recent position statement Creating Healthy Places has sought to spell out why the economic, cultural and environmental benefits of creating healthy landscapes make doing so simply a ‘no brainer’.

Unlike many other awards, there is no ‘landscape’ category within the Housing Design Awards. Each entry is judged on its overall merits, so, public space, urban design and the relationship with the wider landscape are all taken into consideration, along with, for example, tenure mix, quality of build and whether or not this would be a nice place to raise the kids.

Judges comprise surveyors, planners, architects, developers, surveyors and this landscape architect.  It is a fertile and entertaining mix. All shortlisted schemes are visited by all the judges. Generally this consists of two days touring London and two days in an insane charge around the country looking
at everything else. Somehow it works.

This is my second year as a judge and it is striking that there really does seem to be a genuine attempt to deliver good open-space planning and high-quality landscape design in nearly all the projects. These are light years away from the poorly considered, car-dominated layouts I recall from when I first started working as a landscape architect 30 years ago.

And yet... there are still, even in these austere times, examples of criminal waste, either through a lack of understanding of the importance of correct landscape management, or a ludicrous dependence on planting which is manicured to within an inch of its life. It wouldn’t bother me in a fully private setting, but there’s a lot of public money involved here. Over-engineered roads (unsympathetic highways authorities who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge there was ever something called the Manual for Streets), metalwork repainted at the whim of company chairmen, established, healthy native planting ripped out and replaced with ornamental species. ‘It was only temporary’ – why? They should heed the mantra: ‘Do it once and do it well’?

The downside of design and build contracts is always in evidence. With design teams frequently ditched at planning, the quality of finishes really suffers either through a failure to grasp the intention of the designer, or through deliberate cost cutting. This ranges from badly crafted internal bannisters to cheap doorbells and duff paving details. It may result in ‘a cost-effective solution’ but it is not sustainable design or good value.

It is therefore quite remarkable, that in spite of all this, there is some truly great stuff going on out there.

Bath Riverside

Don’t, whatever you do, ever, attempt to drive into Bath from the east at 9am. Traffic is at a complete standstill. If ever a city needed help with devising alternative transport strategies then this is it.

So, the news that construction has begun on a vast residential scheme (by Bath standards) at the former Stothert and Pitt crane works alongside the River Avon next to the city centre is to be celebrated. When complete, Bath Riverside will contain over 2,200 homes on a site of 44 acres, 19 acres of which will be open space. There will be commercial space and a school.

This is the gritty side of Bath. No Georgian crescents here. This is Sainsbury’s and Holiday Inn Express territory. There are sheds where presumably things are made or repaired. There is tat. There is even a small gyratory system (Bath scale). There is a lot of derelict and under-used land, but what to do with it and how should it look? That is the perennial Bath problem which seems destined to strangle any development in the city at birth, so to get anything built which is not neo-Georgian pastiche is an achievement in itself.

But at last after, it has to be said, much careful thought and exhausting consultation, the project is under way with the first phase of 299 homes up and running and occupied. Of these 40% are described as affordable.

The thing is, that by encouraging high density development (by Bath standards), at a riverside city centre location, this ticks lots of boxes. It is on brownfield land. It encourages people to leave their cars behind (in a splendidly vast underground car park for 220 cars) and use buses which connect through the middle of the scheme, or bikes (it’s flat beside the river in this city of hills), or walk the 15 minutes to the centre of town, or, maybe, take a boat.

Connections are key. For the first time in decades, the public has access to this stretch of riverside, bridges are being restored and new networks created, effectively extending the walkable city to the south west.

Masterplanned by Feilden Clegg Bradley (Holder Mathias is the executive architect) with Grant Associates as landscape architect, the scheme manages to straddle inevitable references to Georgian architecture with a recognition of the scale of the brick and stone Victorian warehouses which still exist further upstream and which wouldn’t look out of place in a northern industrial town. Yet what we have is an undoubtedly contemporary solution and this is a credit to the developer Crest Nicholson, the design team, the planners, and to the good folk of Bath who have had the sense to recognise something good when they see it.

The scheme is dominated by bold monolithic blocks punctuated with generous amounts of open space, much of it either public or publicly accessible. However there are two sizeable ‘pavilions’ set within gardens overlooking the river, and a series of townhouses tucked away to the rear. Unsurprisingly, dressed Bath stone is the dominant material.

There is probably something to be said for employing Bath-based architects and landscape architects who presumably have by now a pretty good idea of how to get things done in the city. The fact that Feilden Clegg Bradley and Grant Associates work together on a regular basis must help a bit too.

There is one nice quirk to the project which is the low-rise neighbouring scheme of carefully sculpted houses designed by the excellent Alison Brooks Architects which acts a foil to the Feilden Clegg Bradley buildings.

Brooks’ scheme, of just 26 dwellings, not yet complete, is a follow on from its wonderful project at Newhall Be in Harlow, but with a Bath twist. There is nothing twee or retro about these. The houses anchor the key north east corner of the site and will be a clever transition to the traditional low-rise Bath townscape. There are nods to Bath’s traditional building forms, and carefully controlled views towards the city and the river. Grant Associates is the landscape architect for this too. The scheme was one of four winners in the ‘project’ category of the Housing Design Awards, for incomplete work.

Now, I have always been suspicious of public art.  ‘Let’s make a real mess and then tart it up with bits of art’. I hate the gratuitous use of sculpture.

Crest Nicholson makes a big play of public art at Bath Riverside. There is stained glass (nice) and lots of little bits and pieces of sculpted artifacts tucked away in nooks and crannies, and all designed by local students and schoolchildren. Which is rather sweet really. Regrettably, even in Bath, a lump of metal is a lump of metal and bits are being nicked (even as I write this), with the same gusto as they’d be nicked in South London (where I am writing this). 

In a way, setting aside their scrap value, this altruistic gesture is fine because these small pieces, slow worms, roman helmets, ships etc celebrate the place, but by banging on about what is really a bit of a sideshow, Crest Nicholson is missing a trick. Why bother when you’ve got such distinctive and elegant architecture set in a landscape which is all about its place?

This is a terrific scheme. It is bold and creative and there’s a mix of people living here. It’s in a great location. It celebrates the river. It connects to the city by bridges and pathways. It creates new open spaces which link to other city parks. But mainly, I think I’d like to live here.

The landscape design is crisp: simplicity of materials with appropriate planting palettes. In some locations just two or three species are used in a masterly way when others would be tempted to ‘enrich’ things
a bit. As with the buildings, Bath stone dominates the finishes.

The apartments are spacious and from the upper levels have views to the surrounding hills and to key Bath places such as the Royal Crescent and the Abbey.

The other great thing is that the riverside path is allowed to flood and that part of the open space is set at riverbank level with the express intention of this too being allowed to flood. More boxes ticked Beside the river, there are complex and entirely appropriate matrices of waterside herbaceous planting, including (to my delight and surprise) wild garlic (pretty to look at and you can cook with it!).

Courtyards are cleverly considered so several groups of residents can gather in secluded spaces without being too aware of people nearby and without a sense of being overlooked, even though they are. There is a boules court in the middle although I suspect it may have been a mistake to surface it in astro-turf. There are places to have barbeques and places for children to play.

Much of the planting is edible. There are great swathes of strawberries, plum trees and herbs.
It is all so sophisticated that someone who knows what they are doing will need to look after it all.  I was slightly concerned at one point when it was announced that the sort of tasks the concierges (caretakers?) would undertake was grounds maintenance. One can only hope that Crest Nicholson don’t fall into the trap of thinking, even for a moment, that low cost is good value. And it won’t take much to look after this planting properly, just a bit of thought and some decent advice.

Trees are planted big, and they’re alive and healthy.  There’s no mucking about here. Bath Riverside is thriving on the back of an investment in the skills of a good landscape architect. I hope Crest Nicholson recognises this.

So, there’s a rhythm and a quality to all this which cheerfully ignores the surrounding late 20th century British vernacular of sheds, roundabouts and car parks, to reflect Bath’s historic core and helps reconnect this place with the city, its people and its landscape. It tells us that we can do things differently if we are just prepared to invest in a bit of thought and go that little bit further. I, for one, am rooting for it.

Jo Watkins is a former president of the Landscape Institute.

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