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Fields of least resistance Richard Rose-Casemore considers the pros and cons of building on greenfield sites

The Architect

Family with picnic basket walking into a field

So, I sit in my tiny garden on a sunny Sunday in reflective mood wondering what on earth is happening to our towns and cities in the race to achieve impossible housing targets. Two cities close to my own heart, Exeter and Winchester, are suffering such that the green gaps which have given distinction to neighbourhoods for centuries are being joined up as new amorphous sprawls. This not only destroys precious habitats for our flora and fauna, but causes loss of identity for the humans too.

Do you remember the concept of ‘brownfield sites’, which was championed by John Prescott amongst others and was supposed to be exhausted within existing urban centres before we dug up our fields around the edge of them? The definition of a brownfield site remains one which has been previously developed, whilst a greenfield site is by definition yet undeveloped. One common misunderstanding is that Green Belt is the same as greenfield, but whilst it represents 13% of England’s land, the former is quite different, doesn’t necessarily involve virgin land, and has its own particular protected status.

We are told the the UK is short of ‘suitable’ housing and that approximately 3 million new homes are needed by 2030. Only recently, in January of this year, new Academy of Urbanism Chair David Rudlin responded to the Government’s housing white paper saying:

“…the first priority for new housing should be within existing towns and cities and (AoU) supports measures to bring forward brownfield development and the more intensive use of existing urban areas.”

The degree of ‘intensity’ should clearly be judged on a case-by-case basis. Simple design codes should be in place by each local authority to establish limits on density, height and overall scale – as well as ring fencing generous green spaces for individuals and for all. There is no reason why a good urbanist cannot also be a good ruralist.

The trouble is, brownfield sites are more expensive to develop. They often involve removal of previous buildings, foundations, car parks… even air strips. They can also be contaminated above or below ground through previous use, which adds huge costs for the developer. The truth is that once you get past the tricky planning hurdles, greenfield sites are simpler, cheaper, less risky, and the returns come quicker. This is why your fields are being turned to concrete (if they are not already covered in solar panels).

But fields don’t have ready infrastructure: roads, services, drainage etc so we have to put those in. This new infrastructure may be adequate for the new development, but more often than not connects to inadequate existing arrangements causing chaos and congestion.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) publishes analysis and statistics on this subject, some of which fly in the face of what we witness all around us. However, CPRE do add to the pressure on ministers in the review of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to ‘make suitable brownfield sites the first priority for any public funding, and prevent public funding for greenfield sites where these would make competing demands’. So, academicians, environmentalists and pressure groups are all having their say, but the evidence is all around us.

The Architect

About Richard Rose-Casemore

Richard Rose-Casemore

Richard Rose-Casemore is a practitioner and an academic. Having worked for some of the leading practices in the UK, he co-founded Design Engine Architects in 2000, and enjoys working in all sectors and at all scales, from masterplanning to interior design, with architecture at the centre. He has been the recipient of numerous national and international awards during 25 years of practice, and received the Stephen Lawrence Prize for his own house. Richard has travelled widely in his teaching and practice, and worked in South Africa for a year as an undergraduate. He has a particular passion for teaching and led a Masters studio at Oxford Brookes University School of Architecture between 1995 and 2010. He continues to act as a visiting critic and external examiner at various UK Schools. Richard is currently a Fellow of Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of Oxford Brookes University, an Academician of Urbanism, a Member of the Chartered Society of Designers, and sits on the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Validation Board. He was a CABE Representative for five years and now chairs or sits on various Design Review Panels and the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF).

Articles by Richard Rose-Casemore

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