As we mature and grow as adults there is a desire to lay down roots. To ground ourselves. One way we do this is by finding a sense of place, somewhere to belong. This is increasingly difficult to do in modern cities. Towers of concrete and glass penetrate the cityscape, packing growing workforces into ever smaller spaces. London is no exception.
As one of the oldest and largest metropolises in the Western world, London has a remarkable past. Like many European cities it began life as an organic and spontaneous creation. Different parts of London display their unique slice of time from the nation’s history, whether it be the baroque beauty of St Paul’s Cathedral or the neo-gothic glory of the Palace of Westminster. But beneath the majesty of London’s public spaces there are the deep wounds inflicted by town planners since the end of World War Two.
Many working class families in London before the war had to endure appalling living conditions in slum housing. Clean running water, central heating, and indoor toilets were luxuries rarely enjoyed. Rising damp, leaky rooftops, and sinking foundations were the norm. But these single or two-story terraced homes had been built on streets which provided a social space where people could interact and connect. Despite overwhelming material problems, working class families were still bound together as robust communities through neighbourhood networks.
It was for their sake that social reformers campaigned for the construction of new, modern homes. The devastation of the London blitz and the beginning of Britain’s first ever majority Labour government gave town planners the opportunity to remedy this problem. But this opportunity was squandered. Old houses and streets were knocked down and cleared out. Families were then uprooted and packed into poorly constructed high-rise tower blocks. The recent disaster at Grenfell Tower has exposed just how unsafe these buildings are across Britain.
Where Londoners once formed robust local networks through regular social contact on the streets, many of these modern tower block estates have been afflicted by family breakdown, drug addiction, petty crime, and entrenched unemployment. Without local networks to support them, families have become more vulnerable, and tower block developments have been one of the significant causes of a decades long social decline.
There have been growing calls for change, on both left and right, in London. The main organisation pushing for change is Create Streets. They have been campaigning for greater street based development, namely terraced housing and apartments, to replace multi-story tower blocks. Create Streets also operates as a social enterprise, providing advice on setting up street based development schemes. Their important work is establishing the intellectual and political case for the revival of streets.
But steady progress is already being made. The Hyde Group’s Packington estate built seventeen Victorian style townhouses in Islington which are being rented at affordable prices for the original tenants. This is a significant step for the return of traditional terraced housing in London. There is also already ample proof of the value of street based development in certain areas of London. Islington and Kensington & Chelsea are both dominated by street based buildings and have, respectively, the first and second highest population densities of any borough in the whole of London. Streets appear to be just as capable of housing a growing population as the tower blocks.
Not only are street based developments more efficient, they also provide urban spaces where people actually want to live and raise families. A survey in 2002 found that 89% of people wished to live in street based houses, such as bungalows, village houses, Victorian terraced housing, and semi-detached houses, instead of tower blocks. There is popular demand for more traditional street based homes and that should not be surprising. Streets provide a space in which neighbours can interact and socialise, sowing the seeds of communal identity and nurturing social capital.
Building more homes is crucial, which raises the question of how and where these new homes should be built. All are agreed that decaying ‘sink estates’, tower block estates which have become centres of social deprivation, and ‘brownfield sites’, neglected land previously used for industrial purposes, are ripe for regeneration programmes. But greater street based development could also be the answer to winning the consent of communities to build on some green belt land to help tackle the housing crisis.
In London there is hope for a return to the street based development of the past. Streets are the arteries which keep the social life of a city flowing. They allow people to interact face to face, make lasting friendships, and create local communal bonds. If we can revive this tried and tested form of urban planning, then individuals and families might be able to rediscover that sense of belonging which is our best defence against the loneliness which defines modern city life for too many people.