Street Avenues

Three London tree avenues

I have blogged before about urban trees, but their value to local residents is something I continue to rediscover. The recent Platinum Jubilee reminded me of Silver Jubilee Avenues that are now mature, such as my local one along Chesterfield Walk outside the Ranger’s House on Blackheath. Not too far away is a walk that I like on Angerstein Lane, where I only recently discovered from a local resident who keeps up a garden outside his house there is another mature Silver Jubilee Avenue.

Angerstein Lane in Blackheath

Of course there are also lovely avenues in Greenwich Park itself to explore that date from different periods of time like the curved lime trees at the main gate leading up the hill, and the horse chestnut avenues leading the eye from the Wolfe Statue to the Blackheath Gate. I recently also found that a lime tree avenue called Duke’s Avenue curves around the eastern edge of Chiswick House in West London.

My explorations continue and just yesterday I found a mature street tree avenue in a “Homes for Heroes” estate in Bellingham, South East London, and another in Dulwich: both will have probably just had or are about to have their centenaries. They also both form part of the Garden City design legacy, with the low thick hedge to the front gardens also being a key design element.

Homes for Heroes houses in SE London

I do hope we plant some street avenues for the Platinum Jubilee too!

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Three timber structures in Greenwich Borough

Three timber structures in Greenwich Borough

If you take a bus over Blackheath out of London you are on the old Roman Watling Street, now the A2, crossing the roundabout over the A102M, where the first of the timber building on this tour is on the triangle site where Old Dover Road has its junction with Shooter’s Hill Road, on a former car sales yard. You can read about it on my October 2020 blog – Building Faster in Timber – and see the insulated timber walls here before they were clad in modest brick to fit into the 19th century terrace houses near the site. Soon only me, the owners, and you now, will know that timber frames lie beneath.

Keep travelling east and to Woolwich, and walk down to where the Thames Ferry Crossing starts, where, on a most unprepossessing back alley called Glass Yard next to the Leisure Pools, is my second unlikely timber structure: a canopy over purpose built Electric Vehicle Charging Points. The timber canopy is kitted out with solar panels. It is an attractive-looking way to reuse redundant petrol station forecourts.

From here you can jump on a bus back to Greenwich along the Woolwich Road. Just on the north west corner of the third roundabout – after you pass a small retail park – is a six storey new timber structure: Charlton Workstack. Its’ still raw timber panels show what look like huge deep balconies on its west face. But this facade will be glassed in. The whole building is for workspaces, the idea is to take those space hungry single storey business parks and stack them, with heavy duty goods lifts to all floors and an ample large lorry turning space in the yard in front. Setting the pace here for Greenwich public building in wood, Greenwich Enterprise Board commissioned timber frame expert architects dRMM, who are pioneering designers of CLT buildings, (along with Waugh Thistleton, who are creating the Black and White office Building on Rivington Street in Shoreditch).

It is hard to see why timber frame buildings are still so rare. Could it be due to the UK not having a structural timber production industry yet? Should we be planning for 2050 now, planting the forests of the future?

What is a Town Centre For? Part Two

What is a Town Centre For? Part Two

In a RTPI blog in 2020 I referred to two examples of bringing new uses into failing high street spaces. One is a disused cinema, converted by Ktesius in Brighton into housing with a foyer on street level which will have public access, reflecting some of the qualities the original cinema foyer would have had. This project is now nearly complete.

The chain store identikit model of High Streets across the country is failing. The second of my examples of a radical rethink is the BHS store on Oxford Street, whose dramatic collapse would have been unthinkable once.  But the building has revitalised: the rear half has become a food hall, and provides a valuable location for local workers and shoppers to lunch. 

Of course neither of these examples fits into the neat use class typology of the planning system. Both needed strong willed entrepreneurs with vision to push the boundaries. The Peckham multi-storey car park is now Peckham Levels: a mix of bars, restaurants, art galleries, yoga studios and workshops. It is another maverick project, but is exactly what our High Streets need to kick start them back into life.

Read the whole blog at https://www.rtpi.org.uk/blog/2020/july/unlocking-our-high-streets-the-need-for-a-clear-vision/

Can a market town revitalise its retail?

What is essential for the developer of a difficult high street site is to have a vision.

Ashford in Kent is a good example of a local authority-led initiative to improve its town centre experience. There are multiple actions: a new department store opened a few years ago on an experimental ‘square’ surrounded by carefully reworked streets with trees and lighting. Then the town centre manager helped the council to revitalise a failing shopping mall after the Council made a brave move to purchase it. As the then town centre manager Jo Wynn-Carter says on her Retail Inspired consultancy web site:

 “Ashford Borough Council is a trail blazer in this regard: purchasing an ailing shopping centre and employing a retail specialist to advise them and deliver a strategy to halt the further decline. The Council saw the bigger picture, supporting the entire town centre and increasing footfall, dwell time and subsequent inward investment.”  Source: https://retailinspired.org/

Now the Council has done the impossible again. Near the Station (for both domestic and international rail services) and several car parks are empty 19th century industrial buildings, several now transformed into a new destination. Buying the site then appointing an architect to develop this into something that would draw people was a brave intervention.  The architect had experience in Peckham Levels to draw on, but could this city vibe be recreated in a market town? During the pandemic they used social media to great effect and also created a Vegan Market. Now fully open, Coachworks is a vibrant mix of co-working spaces, pop up shops, a community hall for hire, a hairdressing salon and a microbrewery, all surrounding an open sunny space of good proportions with seating and tables, lit at night.   At the weekend in daytime the open space is popular for a family brunch, and the hall comes alive at night when it is used as a venue. It is convenient for an early evening meet-up for anyone using the station, but is also close enough to the new Ashford College campus and the town centre to ensure a steady flow of users.

Town Centres need good environments

In Creating Better Places – a book I produced with this title for the Open Government web site- I suggest a key component is bringing the environment into town. The cover image is from the heart of Paris just off the Rue de Rivoli, where carefully managed tree avenues give shaded vistas to connect places. See https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/core-connections-ltd/16276/

In the second of four videos about town centres and the pandemic (created in 2020 with the support of sintered stone company Neolith), the impact of experiments with road closures was examined.  Good cycle connectivity with suburbs is important to an image of a 15 minute neighbourhood: schools, shops, leisure and parks all well connected by walking and biking routes to homes. It seems that some of the experiments might stick in the longer term, and meanwhile the quality of front garden displays has greatly improved. To watch the videos visit You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvLEnWtJ0xo

Building faster in timber

28 July walls with insulation in place

The insulated walls went up in a six week contract for the four houses.

4 September roof timbers in place

Here are the timber frames for the roofs

11 October slates on the roofs

And this weekend I saw the slated roofs in place.

It is exciting to actually watch a timber framed building take shape on site – as the rapid progress on this scheme in Blackheath illustrates. We secured planning permission on a site previously refused at appeal, by combined discussion with neighbours and with the council officers, addressing each objection carefully. The rapid construction allowed the frames to be put up on site in just six weeks, minimising disruption on the street and for neighbours.

If you are interested in gaining planning permission for a site by using this rapid form of construction get in touch. My details are in the contact tab above.

The Future of the High Street: Conversations at Home No 2

We held the second Conversation at Home in July 2020 on the future of the High Street. So much is evolving fast particularly in the way street space is allocated in major cities, and we heard an excellent presentation from Esther Kurland of Urban Design London on London’s latest streetscape projects. Alistair Barr of Barr Gazetas architects showed a sketch of how a vertical zoning might work for reusing a redundant high street shop or office building, Tim o Callaghan of Nimtim architects reviewed the High Streets around his home and studio and we debated initiatives in Catford.

Here are some key quotes from the video, which can be accessed at video of the Rendezvous UK#2: https://youtu.be/GvLEnWtJ0xo.

Esther talks about the function of high streets
Tim expresses our concerns at extending permitted development rights to converting shops to flats without quality controls in place.
Trevor makes the case as a developer to trust the local community’s views on wha t makes a good street.
Making things used to be one of the activities in the West End of London even as recently as the 1960s, and making things could return to our high streets.
Participants in the second NEOLITH Conversation at Home
Hosted by urban designer Liz Wrigley

The future of shopping

Core Connections Director Elizabeth Wrigley hosted a video on the future of shopping coming out of lockdown as one of a series of videos for sintered stone company Neolith.

You can access the video at https://neolithnow.com/tertulias-de-andar-por-casa-with-neolith-UK-01/

We looked at new uses on High Streets such as the former BHS just off Oxford Street in London that is now a food hall, and a disused cinema in Brighton very close to the Royal Pavilion that is residential now but with a foyer area open to public access. We discussed the new ideas about using roof spaces to grow food, that tenant businesses can access for tasty locla lunch ingredients.

Local high street shops are seeing a bit of a renaissance due to people working from home and accessing their shops on foot or by bike. The new pilot schemes to reclaim space to walk in on roads could be interesting experiments for the future.

Other uses should be welcomed into high streets such as co-working spaces for those who do not want to commute every day but who need a space that is not in the home. Empty spaces above shops could be converted, as could redundant acres of car parks and redundant floors of multi-storey car parks such as the one in Peckham that has become an artists paradise.

Settling in Suburbia

What should suburban development feel like?

carrowbreck 2

Horsted Park Proctor Matthews 2 Top: Carrowbreck Meadow Norwich
Above: Horsted Park Kent

We all know what suburbia is like: in the 1920s in London the Metroland set the tone, and many other suburban city areas have similar layouts with semi-detached homes on wide streets with cul-de-sac branches. The car is essential to living, as there are few other ways to connect. Yet in places like Croydon a new set of guidelines is suggesting any new development should rise to three stories, and in other parts of this city large plots are being split to insert small mews-like homes in place of garages and outbuildings.

What should these places look like? What is to replace that Tudorbethan style of sloping roofs in red tiles, red bricks, render and timber decoration that we all know. The garage on the side of the house is usually now a storage space as no SUVs would fit! Change to a more efficient terrace form has occurred in a few notable places such as Horsted Park in suburban Kent between Rochester and Chatham. The use of brick and the sloping roofscapes here give some familiarity.

In Norwich pioneering Passivehouse developments have been built giving a new suburban format for the houses, which include orientation to capture winter sun and planting to provide protection from summer sun. In Elmswell, a large village in Suffolk, a combined approach to design by the council, a housing association and the Suffolk Preservation Trust produced a scheme of affordable homes to eco standards. Their pink rendered walls and timber cladding are distinctive, and the shapes are set to capture sunlight when needed. At Carrowbreck Meadows on the edge of Norwich, smaller windows, pergolas shading the larger ones, retained tall trees near the houses and white rendered walls introduce a new visual format for suburban design. In both cases the councils own the land.

Left: Elmswell Clayfields, Right: Carrowbreck Meadows

New forms of ownership

But in Cambridge the new suburbia includes a scheme with a layout where the cars are excluded from streets and gathered into a small car park, so the street is both narrower and completely safe to use. The homes have much smaller gardens and share the street space. They also have a meadow behind the homes that can be shared. This radical design came about because the community owns and designs the scheme in a self-build programme. The houses are all similar, in terraces with different brick facades to introduce variety and a theme of marmalade coloured front doors adds to the visual complexity in a very simple layout.

Left: Fronts, centre : the shared open space, Right: the sit-out areas on the street

It is the layout of the whole development that is novel for suburbia, not just the individual homes. The method of design and construction is different because the ownership is different.

Letchworth Four looked at how to make Garden Cities into Connected Cities

On 19 June participants at the fourth Letchworth Garden City conference looked at the topic of transport: connecting garden cities to other cities by public transport will save congestion, pollution, reduce CO2 and to allow each centre to develop a specialisation so the whole Connected City complex can offer more than the individual cities in isolation.

The day’s presentations can be found here, and the declaration with support from participants on the day is also on the New Garden Cities Alliance web site. We examined cities in three sub regional areas in south England: around Aylesbury; Tewkesbury and North Essex. Lord Adonis gave a presentation on reopening some critical rail lines cut in the 1960s by Dr Beeching when we all thought cars were the future not trains!

The very positive view from the conference was that we should move towards a more transport-oriented view of city planning, and plan for the longer term – 50 years ahead. Garden Cities will be well placed to provide attractive, achievable solutions as we begin to move toward a 2050 Net Zero target.

Is this a Timber moment?

Is this a Timber moment?

Cherry tree in almshouses courtyard Grenwich

Alex at drmm Forest of Fabrication exhibition

Forest of Fabrication exhibition

When in the 17th century John Evelyn wrote Sylva, he recognised that to have ships they needed to plant trees, and that the trees would take half a century to mature to provide our “hearts of oak” hulls. He was a public figure and his call to action was followed. The UK climate lends itself to tree cover, but we do not now manage our forests to grow timber for furniture, houses or fuel. Existing sawmills do well on timber fencing orders but have no ambition to help provide the homes that could be built using our new timber technologies. However at a symposium in the Building Centre yesterday I learnt about many remarkable timber buildings that are already in use, and that more are being built, but I also learnt that as usual we have ‘passive reluctance to change’. But instead we should use the ‘passive cooling’ that street trees provide us and the many wellbeing aspects such as smelling nice that timber buildings bring.

Who does not like cherry blossom? But a cherry wood floor or wall is also a joy. Architects specifying new woods such as cherry or tulipwood have found they are delightful.

I never understand why major housebuilders use timber to stuff a roof with trusses that mean it can never be used in future as an additional space for a room as the family grows. Do they hate families so much? Or is this another example of ‘passive reluctance to change’? Maybe the waste of so much potential extra built useable space should become frowned upon through building regulations? Surely at a stroke extra room space could become available in the next 5-50 years in each new home built. We need a new John Evelyn to campaign about timber roofing and growing our own trees.

Arts & Crafts

arts & crafts wallpaper interpretation
My interpretation of an arts & crafts wallpaper design

John Ruskin, who started the drive back to craftsmanship, restoring historic buildings and using nature as an inspiration for drawing skills, was born 200 years ago, and two exhibitions are on to celebrate this, in Temple II London and in Sheffield, where Ruskin set up a Crafts Guild.

The Garden City movement took many lessons from the Arts & Crafts designs, and we may be ready for another crafts revival, as in the last week a BBC program on a group of craftspeople held a ‘month in the country’ experiment creating objects together.

Ruskin turned to the stones of gothic Venice for inspiration: an interesting location to have chosen, with its mix of Byzantine and Palladian influences in a place that was at the crossroads of international trade at the time when the most significant architecture was created. The message is more about lively cross fertilisation of ideas than of stuck and crumbling heritage, so perhaps we should think again about Ruskin’s actual messages.

And what thoughts we have now to face! Climate Change, sliding away from Europe and with this a loss of even more manufacturing, the challenge to grow more food locally, and still no real answers to how to build both beautiful and affordable homes in healthy, non-polluted environments. In fact, the same messages as the garden cities faced 100 years ago. Welwyn Garden City has its anniversary this year.