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Are we killing the UK’s urban character?

Have you ever driven down a newly built road or estate, looked around, and succumbed to a strange empty feeling? Maybe you’ve been walking around a new apartment block or local development in the city and feel like you’ve never been anywhere with so little atmosphere? I’ve come across this feeling all too often and recently it appears to be much more frequent with new schemes sprouting up all over the country. Are property developers worrying less about the final product? Are publicly funded renovation projects becoming careless in design and management? Or is architecture as a whole becoming increasingly uninspiring?

A new development Braintree, Essex. A prime example of modern housing lacking a sense of place.
A new development Braintree, Essex. A prime example of modern housing lacking a sense of place.

Undoubtedly, most readers will have driven past or even live near a new development project. Be it an inner city renovation scheme or a completely new suburban town, many people in the UK now come into contact with modernisation during their daily lives. These low standard conversions and new towns often create characterless streets, houses and services.

However, modernisation has helped countless communities improve their standard of life and local area by tearing down poor architecture and monolithic apartment blocks. Many council apartment estates have been redeveloped such as Trafalgar Place in London, which made it to the shortlist of the RIBA Stirling Prize. Furthermore, it’s beyond doubt that the country is not lacking inspiring architecture and the RIBA Stirling prize demonstrates this. Whilst some of these buildings may be above budget for the average house builder, creativity comes at no cost and there are fantastic new architects entering the market every single week—the lack of character cannot be put down to a lack of innovative design. Nevertheless, projects such as Trafalgar Place can also cause controversy with locals, creating an uproar often concerning “Social Cleansing” as privatisation continually ‘creeps’ into public land and assets. This may be beside the point, but it demonstrates that the people often know when they want things to stay as they are.

It has often been asked “when is enough redevelopment enough?” Bristol has seen hundreds of millions of pounds spent on the local redevelopment of the docks and the city centre around Broadmead. Arguably, the dockland redevelopment was a necessity and it has clearly boosted the economic climate within the city and improved Bristol’s image greatly. However, redevelopments such as those happening in Broadmead, and the new estates on the verges of Bristol have often left me confused as to whether they are really needed. Essentially, these new, modern buildings remove what the public are so desperately trying to keep: the cities that they first moved into!

Yet, it’s clear that simply denying the building of thousands of homes across the country isn’t the answer. The UK is amidst a housing crisis and the Barker Review of Housing Supply claimed that about 250,000 homes need to be built every year to prevent spiralling house prices and a shortage of affordable homes. The ever-growing number of characterless developments seem often to be sparked by developers looking to make quick work of a piece of land to bolster housing totals. It’s usually the case that new towns with an atmosphere and sense of place come at a premium compared to schemes built under financial and monetary constraints. This is to be expected, yet I don’t think it’s beyond any developer to create an atmospheric enclave of new housing—be it 10 homes or 1000! Often some of the best place-making solutions are the simpler ones and they’re usually cheaper to build.

The old Bristol harbour railway located outside the modernised M-Shed, which was formally a dockside transit shed. The collision of old and new in the heart of Bristol.
The old Bristol harbour railway located outside the modernised M-Shed, which was formally a dockside transit shed. The collision of old and new in the heart of Bristol.

Modernisation and redevelopment in the UK is seen as a threat to a historically tied Britain. In places, redevelopment and the building of large-scale schemes on the edges of quintessentially British towns is the wrong decision. However, whilst we like to embrace our past, the needs of the British population have also evolved with time. More homes need to be built, services need to be updated and older buildings do eventually need to be demolished. A balance needs to be struck and developers need to emphasise place-making a lot more when considering a new build. The people using that space may be doing so for another 50 years or possibly more, so it’s vitally important to create a place that can stand the test of time. It is of paramount importance that towns and cities across the UK modernise without losing their unique quirks and personalities that ultimately make British architecture incomparable to anywhere else in the world.