Adding up all those green fields into a new town

If we are relaxed (at least relatively) at the prospect of housing on ‘greenfield’ sites, why not encourage these developments to amalgamate into a single, new town that aspires to the highest standards of place design?

EVEN in the most trying of circumstances – caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – almost 15,000 homes were built during the 12 months up to December 2020.

These are the latest figures in the most recent housing report published by the Scottish Government (here), and they suggest that – in more normal circumstances – the average build rate is closer to 23,000 per year, given how private sector housing completions were down by 6,130 on the previous year, housing association ones down 1,389 and local authority ones down 320.

Whether 15,000 or 23,000, that’s a potential new town the size of Dumfries (last estimated population: 33,440) or Perth (47,430), if we apply a ratio of one dwelling per 2.1 members of the population – which is not unreasonable when one considers Scottish Government statistics – published (here) in June last year – that estimated some 2.65m dwellings for a population of 5.5m.

The housing completions statistics make no mention of where the new homes were built, when it comes to ‘brownfield’ versus ‘greenfield’ sites.

Let’s be generous and assume that it was a straight 50-50 divide – although one suspects the balance might be tilted more towards greenfield sites (ie land unencumbered by a previous history (such as industrial) other than agricultural). In other words, we’re talking about between 7,500 and 11,500 housing completions per year on greenfield sites per year (or double that over two years).

Whichever way you look at it, we’re probably building the equivalent of significantly-sized new towns at least once every two years on Scotland’s greenfield sites – which are often to be found on the edges of towns.

If we have genuine concerns about the high car dependency that many, if not most, greenfield-based housing developments encourage, logic suggests all these different individual housing projects might come together in a planned, potentially car-free environment that – ideally – encapsulates all the best thinking in place design.

From a climate challenge perspective, a car-free town might not be as impressive than a country that’s car-free. But it nevertheless represents a significant dent in harmful emissions.

So, here’s the thing. Most of Scotland’s towns are a quirk of geological fate. They grew up around a coal seam or alongside a river or by the coast. The new town of the future could instead be an artistic endeavour – so charming and progressive that tourists will want to visit and stay, which ought to be able to help make all the other properties in the town relatively affordable.

There is no question that a new town the size of Dumfries or Perth is going to be big enough to justify the setting up of all that might be considered necessary to sustain most people’s requirements. Big enough for schooling, big enough for health provision, big enough for grocer’s shops and libraries and garages and sports facilities and theatre. Of sufficient critical mass for pretty much everything.

All designed to an exacting code that delivers places of genuine beauty and social cohesion. We have the ideas and the design talent, plus the necessary diversity of voices; it cannot be beyond our capabilities to harness them all to deliver the best possible outcomes.

Of course, there is every reason why government authorities might want to push developers towards brownfield sites. Such sites – say with an industrial past – are often blights on a community and, by being located usually within a town or city, might result in reduced car use.

That should remain an ambition.

But every time someone calls for, say, Glasgow’s brownfield sites to be intensively developed, another greenfield site gets the nod for housing (almost without a murmur).

If, as a society, we remain relaxed at greenfield sites being used for housing, let’s amalgamate them into a single, town-sized site, and then design it right. 

It’s not necessarily going to be an easy, administrative task – not least attracting employers whose staff are going to be willing to move so that they can walk to work, or securing the agreement of house builders (many of whom will have built up land banks that they will want to profit from) – but should that be enough to prevent it happening?

A lack of political will might prevent it happening. Intensive lobbying (by those with a vested interest) might prevent it happening. A lack of energy and funding might prevent the establishment of the organisational infrastructure necessary to make it happen. 

But should they?

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Picture: Where once there were fields – Dunbar, East Lothian, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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