RIBA Building Futures – Carwood 2035

A month or so ago I was flattered to be asked to write a ‘think-piece’ on the Future of Villages by the RIBA Building Futures team. The Building Futures website aims ‘to promote public and political debate on the future of the built environment’, and past topics have included ‘Tall Buildings’, ‘Play in the City’ and ‘Architectural Education’. It’s great to see rural development receiving similarly weighty consideration.

My piece, ‘Towards a Rural Renaissance’, looks back from the future of an imaginary Norfolk village – Carwood – describing how it has been transformed by 20 years of progress on rural sustainability and community planning. Most futurology relies for its impact on bold visions, revolutionary thinking and radical re-invention. I therefore approached the task with some trepidation, as I don’t think a radical re-invention of Britain’s villages is either desirable or achievable.

‘Not desirable’ because in very many senses villages deliver lots of things that real people really value, and that are worthy of protection. Many urban dwellers see the ‘rural’ lifestyle played out by affluent commuters as a self-indulgent fantasy, and inherently unsustainable because of its heavy reliance on cars. But for those who live there it offers much that the city doesn’t and rural dwellers are the custodians of England’s ‘green and pleasant land’. Town and country are mutually dependant.

‘Not achievable’ because I suspect most urban-based architects, were they ever to get the opportunity of building in the countryside, might approach the landscape as a tablua rasa, a neutral green context into which can be ‘inserted’ a striking object-building. In fact almost all of Britain’s landscape is artificial, economically active and subject to a complex web of real and perceived ‘ownerships’. These complex and conflicting agendas reach into the everyday politics (small ‘p’) of village life and present a considerable obstacle to anyone wanting to bring about change.

I do think change is needed – to address the sustainability problem of rural life, and to improve the way architects interact with the rural built/farmed environment – but I think that change will be incremental and evolutionary; slow and rather frustrating. And whatever ‘question’ we are asking about the future of villages, I don’t think ‘architecture’ is the answer – certainly not in aesthetic terms. ‘Planning’ is probably closer to an answer, but planning has to become something that is done by communities, rather than to communities.

I usually think of myself as your average left-of-centre architect, but I think the Government’s localism/neighbourhood planning agenda is a step in the right direction for the countryside. The Community Right to Build introduced as part of the new Neighbourhood Plan process offers the potential for communities to control and locally exploit the uplift in land value that planning permissions create, provided the benefits of development are retained by the community. That is completely new, and potentially radical. How widespread the uptake of these new powers will be is not yet clear, but if Neighbourhood Planning and the Community Right to Build do eventually take hold it will be a consensual process subject, by definition, to the popular vote.

That is probably bad news for your average late-modern(ist) architect who enjoys wonky/expensive/object buildings. But I think it might yet create real opportunities for designers with a more modest/conservative/understated approach who are comfortable building in brick, timber, tile and render built not much more than £1000/sqm, and have a desire to wrest control of house-building from the dead hand of the national house-builder PLCs. There is a place for a certain number of extraordinary buildings in the countryside, and the architecture profession is brilliant at that (our education is predicated on it) – but we also need to get better at designing the ‘normal’ stuff.

My vision of Carwood in 2035 paints a rather positive outcome, one I sincerely hope could be repeated for real in villages across the country. Read it here.

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