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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Eco Towns and Halfway Houses

The government has announced plans for a series of eco towns. On face value you’d expect the green lobby to be very pleased. Unfortunately the greenest aspect of these towns seems to be where they will be constructed: on green field sites in lush green parts of the country. Understandably the current residents of those areas aren’t too happy.

If these new developments were genuinely valuable in the fight against climate change, I’d be inclined to dismiss the complaints as conservative (with both a small and large ‘c’) nimbyism (especially given the social profile of the areas in which they have been proposed — Tim Henman’s father is leading one of the ‘no’ campaigns, for example).

If these were sites that had been chosen as ideal for wind farms or solar installations, I’d be arguing that the local residents had to put up and shut up. The need to reduce our dependence on oil overwhelms arguments about local natural beauty, when you consider the much greater havoc that climate change will wreak on every area of natural beauty.

But the green aspects of these eco towns seems to be little more than a veneer. A thin coating designed to make them palatable to the public. The problem they are really solving is social rather than ecological: a lack of affordable housing.

In Germany this week I’ve seen what appears to be a much better solution to this problem. Better socially, economically and ecologically. It’s not new and features no sexy green technologies, but on first appraisal it seems very appealing.

My wife and I are staying in a flat that her family owns in a small-ish town called Heilbronn. The flat is actually almost halfway to being a house. It is one of eight in a block, four on each side. Each side of the block has a communal staircase, and shared loft and cellar space for laundry, storage and hanging out washing. The buildings are pre-war and the ceilings high. Over time the configuration of each flat seems to have diverged considerably from the others in its block, but this one has three bed/living rooms, two of which are very large, plus a kitchen, bathroom and separate toilet.

The buildings (‘blocks’ seems to conjure up the wrong image) are set in a designated family area, a small grid of wide, leafy, part-cobbled streets through which cars are allowed but restricted to ten kilometres per hour. Playing children take priority on these roads. The whole area exists just five minutes walk from the town centre, and this being Germany, the public transport links are numerous.

The compact nature of the buildings, their location, and the shared facilities, mean that they are cheap (and relatively green) to run, and that there is minimal need for car use. Everyone seems to have a car but you don’t hear them starting up all that often. The area is mixed use, with restaurants, hairdressers, shops and various office-based businesses dotted amongst the housing, so that there are people around throughout the day, reducing the opportunities for crime. The kindergarten and school are both in walking distance — as is the supermarket.

In the UK we don’t seem to understand this type of medium-density housing. We either have towering blocks of flats in city centres where any sense of community is lost, or houses in the suburbs that consume vast quantities of space and generate car-bound commuters. There are alternatives, and I have lived in a few — notably in Reading and Edinburgh. But I haven’t seen an example where we have the recipe just right. In Reading the flats had plenty of outdoor space, but the buildings were uninspired. Dull on the outside, cramped on the inside, and constructed with no appreciation of the need for natural light. In Edinburgh the buildings were gorgeous and the flats enormous, but faced a busy main road and had no garden, or even dedicated parking.

I’m sure that good examples do exist in the UK, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have more. The vast former industrial sites around the UK’s cities are ideal for this type of development. Large, affordable places in family-friendly zones, close to town centres, constructed in a manner that engenders community. I’m not sure how it would work in the UK but here families take turns to be responsible for cleaning communal areas, including the street outside their building. The only enforcement is possible chastisement from your neighbours: no ASBOs here.

As usual this is a half-hour opinion and not a rigorously researched study. But I find it hard to believe that this approach is more complex, more expensive, or less green than the government’s proposed eco towns. And if these halfway houses lack some of the sexiness of the alternative, they could always add an eco veneer: a wind turbine here, a grey water scheme there…

Tom Cheesewright