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Why we should welcome the urban eco-town

The eco-towns of the future might not be rural – and could already be on our doorstep, says Mark Hines

Britain faces a housing shortage. But the last government’s plans to fill the gap by building so-called eco-towns came in for a lot of stick. The plan was to build large numbers of new houses from scratch in the countryside. ‘What’s “eco” about that?’, many people asked. But a new report, ‘Life after Pathfinder’, produced by my practice and commissioned by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, outlines plans for what we believe should be the eco-towns of the future: huge, run-down, pre-existing parts of our cities.

In 2008 we were approached by campaigning group SAVE to come up with ideas for how a group of two-up, two-down houses in east Manchester could be saved from demolition, as was proposed under another government scheme, the Pathfinder programme. This promoted the demolition and rebuilding of enormous areas of ‘underperforming’ housing in city centres.

Instead of assuming it’s best to start over, demolishing usable but uninhabited buildings, we suggested ways in which terraced houses could be adapted. Our ideas allowed existing terraces to be made more varied in character and appealing to modern lifestyles, from one-bed, double-height live-work units to four-bed family houses.

If upgraded and insulated, we found that these 19th-century terraced houses could meet the Code for Sustainable Homes at level four or five, and their occupants would reduce carbon emissions by over 70 per cent from the levels they would have produced in 1990. Also, the embodied energy in an existing Victorian terrace is far too great to sacrifice through demolition and rebuilding.

But it was soon apparent that our report shouldn’t just be about houses. Instead, we needed to find ways to improve deserted and unattractive neighbourhoods. So we began to show, through intervention and refurbishment, how we could create an eco-town in an existing urban area. This doesn’t sound as crazy as it did pre-recession. The advantage of the areas are their location. These houses plug into the city’s infrastructure and can reap the benefits that proximity brings to residents and the network of schools, transport, shops, amenities and cultural attractions that each city can offer.

We met local people who had lost their homes through compulsory purchase under the Pathfinder programme, and witnessed the impact this had. Our report suggests what architects could achieve instead, allowing people to stay in the houses they were brought up in and to pass them on to their children.

Our time helping SAVE has not been profitable, but it has been rewarding. In the 21st century, good housing might not be about photovoltaic panels on every roof, but about getting the basics right. It is possible that the best way we can create a sustainable future is by working with what we’ve already got. In the 21st century, building less might turn out to mean more.

  • Mark Hines is director of Mark Hines Architects

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