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We Asked a Planner How to Build the Perfect Town

As the NHS announces 10 new "healthy towns" to be built around the UK, we asked an expert how we can build housing that's actually good for us.

by Amelia Dimoldenberg
03 March 2016, 2:00pm

The plans for Wixams in Bedfordshire, apparently the closest thing the UK has to a "perfect town" (Photo: wixams.co.uk)

According to the experts, English people don't know how to look after themselves. The English, says the Health Survey for England, have some of the unhealthiest lifestyles in Europe, with rising obesity rates and the high number of Brits happy to drink at least eight pints in one sitting marked out as the two biggest worries.

Lucky, then, that the people paid to make us better are now advising developers on how to build towns that will make us healthier. Ten of these "healthy new towns" are going to be built around England, with the NHS acting as planning consultants in a bid to improve community health. This "cutting edge approach" includes plans to lay non-slip paving stone to reduce accidents and build 1960s-themed cafes in an attempt to make dementia patients feel at home.

This got us thinking about what it takes to build an ideal town: should pubs be on every residential corner or on the high street? How many trendy coffee shops are too many? Are libraries still a thing? We didn't have the answers to any of those questions, so we spoke to Matt Richards – a planner at property consultancy Bidwells – to find out what makes the perfect town.

VICE: Hi Matt. What would plans for the perfect town include?
Matt Richards: Walkability – which means that all the facilities you would expect are within an easy walking distance, so people can use their legs and get some exercise. There would be less of a need for a person to be sat in their car all day.You need a decent centre with good amenities available – shops, restaurants and cafes. These also provide employment so people can work in the town as well as live there.

You also need access to green spaces within a 10-minute walking distance. Decent architecture is essential – if you look at towns like Oxford and Bath, its their attractive architecture that turns them into a place where people would like to visit. And when a town looks great, people foster a sense of pride about it.

In terms of housing, there must be a range of neighbourhoods so you don't create ghettos. Don't lump all types of housing in one distinct area – creating a mixed population will contribute to the success of the place.

What don't you need in a town?
Motorways. If you have major arterial roads running through the heart of the town it essentially creates a divide in movement across a space. You look at the problems in London, for example, when you get down towards places like Southwark, where you have huge railways going across and creating a barrier so there are only small tunnels to pass through.

Can you give an example of a town that has terrible planning?
The old classic is Coventry. After being completely destroyed in the war it was rebuilt after the Blitz and planners are still trying to undo problems there. Lots of the housing estates that were built in Coventry were extremely self contained and used inward facing architecture that didn't relate well to the urban environment, and created a sense of social polarisation. The architecture itself and the road network was also an issue – very brutalist and not friendly at all.

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What do you make of the NHS healthy town plans?
Well they're not necessarily healthy – they seem to be more about people's safety. You always want to consider safety in designs but often it's over-engineered. For example, you might have railings separating the pavement from the road to stop pedestrians getting run over but that can look horrendous. You need to find the balance between a town being both safe and well-designed. You can do that through introducing different pavement types like the NHS are proposing to mark out the boundary between the road and the pavement, and then introducing shared surfaces where cars and pedestrians mix and cars will naturally slow down.

What about environmentally-friendly towns?
I think lots of developers would like to say they would consider environmentally friendly measures in their plans but in reality when it comes to the finances it's a different matter. As a planner, on every project you need to address sustainability and renewable energy – that is generally a council requirement. But unless it is a developer's ethos to build an eco-development scheme they wont go out of their way to provide it.

Do you think it would be possible to create a completely green town?
There is always talk of developing these eco towns but I've never truly seen one come to life. The technology is there, just plant up all the fields in the surrounding area with solar farms – but good luck getting planning permission for that.

Do you think good planning is compromised in favour of big business developments?
Not so much – a lot of councils have policies which require social infrastructure to be delivered. Its called the Community Infrastructure Levy and means that, depending on the size of the scheme, developers have to pool a certain amount of money specifically to be used on social infrastructure. That is non-negotiable. But it does mean that sometimes developers can't afford to deliver the affordable housing provision that the council want to see delivered, which the council will see as a problem. This can create frustrating delays in the planning process.

So how easy would it be to create the "perfect town" today?
It would be a long process. I think there are the skills out there, and the willing, but it would be difficult to get it right, as people would be approaching it from different angles. Getting a balanced amount of housing would be straightforward, but it's creating a sense of place that would be the tricky part – making a town that works properly in its own right.

People are very experienced in delivering large housing estates, but what a lot of large schemes lack is making sure that town centres deliver the social and economic infrastructure to support the people living there. You need to start strategically with a master plan. Wixams in Bedfordshire is a good example – that's a successful newly developed town that has everything you need.

Thanks, Matt.

@ameliadimz

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