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Green Sky Thinking debate: It's time to rethink 'outmoded and confusing' Green Belt

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An impassioned plea for new visions of the Green Belt dominated the debate at Open-City’s Green Sky Thinking launch, reports Hattie Hartman

To launch Green Sky Thinking week 2016, Open-City’s seminar programme which starts on Monday, a 100-strong audience turned out to hear panellists showcase four very different visions of a more sustainable future for London. Hosted at AHMM’s Moorlands BREEAM Outstanding offices, this year’s launch featured one architect, two urban designers, and one chartered surveyor and planner.

Architect and Open-City trustee Alison Brooks outlined seven steps towards a more sustainable London, arguing that ‘housing is urban design’ and should be used to restore our streetscapes. Advocating flexibility (buildings that can change use), generosity (a minimum 2.6m ceiling height), diversity (mixed uses) and beauty, Brooks would like to ban the term ‘high-quality design’ which she considers meaningless. Presenting her 43-unit scheme for the South Kilburn Estate in Brent - shortlisted for an RIBA London award - Brooks insisted that to achieve beauty, architects must be engaged to deliver the detail.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park


Eleanor Fawcett of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) described how Chobham Manor’s 800-plus homes, the first of five new neighbourhoods to complete in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, was specifically designed to counter prevailing market trends in Stratford for tiny one- and two-bedroom flats, which cater to a transient community who move on as soon as they can. Chobham Manor set out to demonstrate to the private sector that there was a market for well-designed family homes which could form the basis of a permanent community who would shop on Leytonstone’s nearby high street. Phase one sold out on the first day. Diversity of uses, particularly in the new town-centre plan for Hackney Wick – for which outline planning is being submitted today (22 April) – is being addressed by requiring that retained buildings within the conservation area provide workspace in perpetuity. And navigable pedestrian crossings of the A12 form another part of the strategy to stitch this part of east London back together.

Taking a different tack, chartered surveyor and planner Jonathan Manns of Colliers International advocated a complete rethink of the Green Belt which he termed ‘outmoded and confusing’. He noted that Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest protect the areas of greatest landscape value within the 516,000ha area, while the vast majority of the Green Belt is devoid of high ecological value. Manns favours a ‘green web’ which would link London’s urban fabric together through a network of green spaces, in lieu of the Green Belt. Berkeley Group chairman Tony Pidgley acknowledged that most planning applications in the Green Belt are currently being granted, and called for the establishment of a Green Belt commission to study the issue, an idea rapidly endorsed by Manns.

Green Sky Thinking launch 2016


Finally, PLP Architecture’s Karl Sharro provocatively argued that well-designed and carefully sited towers with a hierarchy of massing should form part of London’s sustainable future. Describing London as a ‘flat city’, Sharro maintained that towers are memorable landmarks, are efficient, and that higher densities enable more generous place-making.

Before asking the audience to choose their preferred vision for London among the four presenters, Open-City director Rory Olcayto suggested that Green Sky Thinking should continue to push the boundaries of sustainability, and that going forward the Open-City programme would increasingly explore sustainability’s social dimensions and ways to achieve a more equitable London.

Via live voting on their mobile devices, attendees resoundingly endorsed a rethink of the Green Belt, with 39 per cent favouring Manns’ vision, followed by 25 per cent voting for the LLDC’s place-making approach, 21 per cent supporting Alison Brooks’ streetscapes of housing and 15 per cent more towers. Because the four proposed visions are so different, and in some cases complementary, these percentages should be viewed only as a rough litmus test of audience sentiment.

One outcome of the launch event is clear: the Green Belt needs a rethink – and possibly yet another commission.

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