There's plenty of space for new communities in our town centres.
We need housing growth, but the question is where that growth should be. The government's growth areas are beset with the need to first create infrastructure and surmount political boundaries. At the same time, suburbs are being taken over by the build-in-my-back-garden developers, much to the annoyance of the nimbys, and our increasingly deteriorating inner-city estates are hampered by the Defend Council Housing debate and residents who rile against gentrification and increased densities.
So are we maximising the potential of our town and city centres? Whether we like it or not, density means more homes closer to where we work and play. It generates the wealth to create support services, lessens our reliance on transport infrastructures and allows us to enhance those that already exist. Would the public be so upset by the regeneration of the high street? Arguably not. It goes on all the time - it must, or it dies.
Such densification could be argued not only to be more sustainable, but to have commercial imperatives. At a conference last month London mayor Ken Livingstone observed that areas such as White City, the Olympic zone and out-of-town retail parks such as Bluewater posed a threat to the West End. He expressed his frustration that to counter this, town-centre shop units would have to be redeveloped to a much greater density, higher, and with larger floorplates - while accepting the planning imperative to retain historic or notable frontages.
The challenge is to embrace the need for large-scale redevelopment and create truly mixed-use schemes combining retail, commercial, housing and support services. Housing must fit the needs not only of the one- and two-bedroom market, but address the need to create the right opportunities for families to live, learn and work in the heart of our towns and cities.
Housing must address the need for families to live, learn and work in the hearts of towns
Initiatives are emerging to create city-centre family living. Schemes are being prepared that take full advantage of the acres of flat roof we create as roof gardens for community activity, leisure and sustainability, creating a new idiom for family living and urban communities. Our towns and cities should re-examine the use of the public realm, optimise parks, and create more traffic-free and pedestrian-friendly zones.
With the government's recent announcements about the decentralisation of certain hospital services to GPs surgeries, with walk-in facilities at stations and airports, the potential for bringing such amenities into the heart of these mixed communities has never been stronger. The same holds true for the establishment of creches, nurseries and primary education. Why not rooftop schools?
Why should we not have a 24-hour community that includes shops, restaurants, social services, leisure and appropriate policing that meet the needs of all? We must interrogate and challenge the accepted paradigm and create the density that leads to the volume, vibrancy and the funding to support a new mixed-community concept.
Peter Wilson is an architect and project manager specialising in regeneration