Contained and Porous

/ Chris Simmonds / Places to live

We have tackled a number of issues in the past year. Our first explored the issue of conflict and reaction to the modernist housing experiment, the result of which was a ground swell of public reaction ultimately stimulating the grass roots housing association movement. A quarter of a century on, the formalising of the public right to have a voice is manifest in the statutory official consultation procedures required now of significant projects that have an impact on the peoples lives.

That initial whipping up of the public response, largely dealt with improving people's physical homes but inevitably by natural extension many began to think their environments also needed improvement. Again, 25 years later, the formalisation of these strategies became enshrined with planning authorities adopting what would be described as best practice. So from a world in which the environments were foisted upon us all, new discussions sought to come to a common consensus a formalised compilation of the best information coming out of the consultation experience. It was this issue we looked at in the second discussion, the examination of 'good places' and government support for rolling out this initiative.

There was another strand tackled in our third discussion which parallels the formalisation of this grassroots evolution and that was the historical recording and documentation of the models that people actually admired – for the most part the old parts of our towns, villages and cities. This is captured in publications such as the Urban Housing Handbook describing the dense urban block building models that characterise many of our traditional towns and cities. Underlying these studies was an academic assertion that what characterises the idea of 'good places' has already been developed in our favourite historical settings.

But that is not to say that only 'good places' can be understood through the idea of the compact and dense historical city. We do not all live in built up areas and at the other extreme is the grassroots development of clusters of houses in the countryside. Here the typology is rooted in the contrast between what we find in cites which is a tendency to have runs of building lining streets in the form of 'contained blocks' and the countryside version of roads and gardens edged by ‘porous' built fabric linked by garden walls and hedging. What is critical to both is the sense of clearly defining the edge condition, it is that clarity that is a reassuring guide for the civil life both within and without the boundary.

In retrospect and looking forward there is a dual need to combine grassroots consultation and advisory processes with on the other hand the idea of expertise rooted in disciplined research. This should not just be limited to urban settings but also exploration of our rural models for living. The notoriously difficult suburban middle ground perhaps then disappears, replaced by the urban contained block becoming more porous and vice versa the porosity of the landscape housing setting becoming more contained. This was the challenging subject of todays discussion.