Podium: When we build, let us build for ever
Wednesday 24 February 1999
From a speech given by the Prince of Wales at
a Housing Corporation conference and exhibition in Brighton
LAST YEAR I became the patron of the Guinness Trust, which has been working hard to promote more thoughtful and far-sighted approaches to the layout and composition of new housing projects. The Guinness Trust has also been immensely helpful in my own efforts to provide new housing of a decent standard at Poundbury, in Dorchester.
Here, on Duchy of Cornwall land, and amid considerable controversy, we have now secured a development programme whereby housing for affordable rent and for open market sale is successfully under way alongside new factories, workshops and community amenities.
Through careful planning, Poundbury is beginning to add a new district to the town of Dorchester, not as soulless suburban sprawl but as a place which, in its own way, will have as distinctive a character as Hampstead has in London, or Clifton has in Bristol.
We are building a place - somewhere which is recognisably a neighbourhood, and where, over time, it should be quite possible to live, to work, to shop and to take leisure, all within an easy walking distance. Far from being "old-fashioned", Poundbury has merely tried to revisit those timeless principles that are best able to create a real sense of community.
I mention Poundbury partly because it is a project that represents what for me are fundamental qualities that distinguish good housing development from bad.
These qualities are widely accepted as ones that help to sell historic homes; they are the essential ingredients for many of the villages, towns and cities which people most enjoy visiting, yet they remain curiously absent from most of what we build today. Could this partly explain why there is such a knee-jerk reaction to new building development? Think of Edinburgh New Town, historic Bath, Chelsea or Marylebone. All of these are highly "liveable", prized locations, but densely populated, too.
And yet so much of what has been built, and much that continues to be built, ignores the basic rules of place-making or, to borrow Al Gore's phrase, "liveability".
Houses are thrown together in chaotic disorder, or segregated by isolated culs-de-sac and walls. Shops are bundled into large retail centres or malls, and workplaces are separated off into so-called "business parks".
All of this undermines the interactions and encounters that sustain good-quality community life, and corrodes neighbourhoods. People stop walking because everything needs a car journey. This is obviously still more of a problem for those who have no access to a car, or can ill afford a bus journey.
Physical and social disintegration is almost inevitable in these circumstances.
One problem is that the whole planning process tends towards conflict and hostility, rather than involvement and reconciliation. This does nothing to help improve the quality of what is built, which then further undermines people's confidence in the very notion of new development of any sort.
We used to have so-called Nimbys, but now I'm told that we have a newer, even tougher generation, known fondly as Bananas ("Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything"!)
There was a time when new building wasn't taken as a byword for destruction or uglification, and an aerial view of most historic market towns and villages, in this country and abroad, will usually display a fine blending of scale, layout, topography and materials, such that town and country coexist happily. Rarely do we build such places now. By contrast, the character of most new house-building completely shatters any such relationship. Instead, the buildings seem to stand quite apart from the landscape - an alien intrusion instead of a sympathetic and logical extension. An A3 standard house type therefore looks identical whether it's in Aberdeen or Exeter, Dover or Carlisle.
In many cultures, over thousands of years, such an invasion of the integrity of land and landscape would have been taken as sacrilegious. Whatever one's spiritual beliefs, I think it is clear that our individual and collective sense of well-being is deeply affected by the character of our natural and man-made landscapes, and the relationship between them.
If this generation builds badly, then it leaves a blight for generations. Ruskin said that "When we build, let us think we build for ever", a point worth making when people speak widely about sustainability but less about its true meaning, which I believe to be about recovering that which is timeless, indeed, sacred.
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