04 Nov 2016
Picture the scene this Saturday evening…people wrapped up warm in scarves, hats and gloves ready for spectacular fireworks displays to celebrate Bonfire Night. But in the year of 1666 it is said that there were no Bonfire Night celebrations in London on 5 November as a result of the raging fire that had spread across the City only two months earlier starting with a baker’s oven and destroying a huge swathe of the Square Mile.
For those of you not familiar with the story of the Great Fire of London, on the night of 2 September 1666 a fire started in King’s Bakery in Pudding Lane. Fires were not uncommon at this time and usually put out quickly but, due to a combination of dry timber buildings from a long hot summer and a strong easterly wind, the fire spread rapidly. Whilst efforts were made to quell the fire it continued to spread for four days until the wind changed direction and the fire was finally put out. Overall four fifths of the City was lost including 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange, Guildhall and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Out of the ashes, however, came a major master planning opportunity to redesign the lost parts of the City. Several masterplans were put forward for its strategic redevelopment which had huge potential for its transformation. One such plan was penned by Sir Christopher Wren who proposed an ambitious vision of neat blocks in a grid system and wide boulevards that would rival those in Paris. The plan went beyond street layout however and included a focus on London’s commercial and productive capabilities including a distribution of markets with a financial centre at the Royal Exchange and a grand terrace fronting the River Thames lined with properties for the various city companies.
Sir Christopher Wren’s Plan (Museum of London)
The majority of other plans put forward followed a similar grid-based approach.John Evelyn presented long straight streets and large squares in an Italian radial plan with central piazzas and streets leading outwards from this point; Robert Hooke proposed streets in perfect straight lines with all other streets branching off at right angles.
John Evenlyn’s Plan (Museum of London)
Robert Hooke (Museum of London)
Controversially, Richard Newcourt suggested a grid-based plan that would require the demolition of areas of the City that had not been affected by the fire. At the centre of each square within the grid system would be a church for the community.
Richard Newcourt’s plan (Museum of London)
Unfortunately, none of these visionary plans for a new London were taken forward. Due to complex land ownership issues and the need to redevelop quickly, properties were largely built on existing plots and streets following the same pattern, albeit a little wider. Whilst some argue that this was an opportunity missed, others consider that it was necessary for London’s businesses and people to recover and get England’s economic powerhouse back on its feet as fast as possible. These visions have however informed future master planning approaches elsewhere in the world, with some believing that Newcourt’s designs influenced the design of Philadelphia and the American grid system model.So whilst the fire didn’t result in the complete redevelopment of the City, crucially it did lead to the introduction of early development controls in the form of Building Regulations. On 8 February 1667, King Charles II introduced a Rebuilding Act, which gave specific instructions for how London was to be rebuilt. These were extended by the City of London in May 1667 in the Building Regulations Order. These development control measures included:
The widening of streets and the requirement for upper floors to no longer jetty beyond the floor below– before the fire, streets were often very narrow with the upper storeys of houses overhanging them, so residents on opposite sides could shake hands between their windows on the top floors.
Introduction of four housing typologies: two-storey houses for small lanes, three storeys for streets and lanes of note, four storeys for ‘high and principal streets’ and mansion houses for ‘persons of extraordinary quality’.
Use of brick or stone for the outside walls of houses (which lead to the demise of timber housing).
Adjacent houses had to be of the same height.
Signs were not allowed to hang into the street.
As a result of the measures and processes introduced by the Acts and Orders, much of the rebuilding work had been completed by 1676. These development control measures were fundamental to the quick recovery from the catastrophe and for reducing the chances of a similar event happening again.Development control measures have clearly moved on since this time, not least through the advent of town planning in the 19th century, but it’s interesting to think about its early origins and how it revolutionised building in London following the fire. And whilst the master planning efforts of some 17th century greats were never implemented (in London at least) it’s interesting to think what could have been… http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35418272
04 Oct 2016
On Saturday 24 September, a colleague and I joined over 60 architects, urban designers, planners and others in Cardiff Bay to envision how the proposed South Wales Metro could be a catalyst for transformation in the region. The “Metro Urban Density” (MUD) event, hosted by Design Circle, the southern branch of the Royal Society of Architects in Wales, offered an opportunity to consider how to maximise the benefits of several proposed stations in relation to the existing built and natural environment.The day began with a site visit to a proposed Metro location, and during the afternoon each team brought its vision for a particular area to life through the use of maps, sketches, photos and models, before presenting its ideas to the whole group. The MUD team are working to compile the results of this work, and a report and accompanying film will be presented to decision-makers in order to illustrate the potential benefits of the Metro project.As someone who lives in Newport and commutes to NLP’s Cardiff office every day, I already benefit from what is almost a “turn-up-and-go” rail service, at least during rush hour. Without this service, I simply would not choose to live where I do. If the same standard of service could be provided throughout South Wales, linking to key employment hubs including (but not limited to) Cardiff city centre, this could re-frame the way we think about travel in the area – making public transport a feasible, attractive option for commuting and leisure trips. It could also lead to new patterns of demand for homes, centred on Metro stops rather than motorway junctions.
One benefit of this potential shift in the geography of housing demand is that it could help to alleviate pressure on areas such as Cardiff, where supply is not keeping up with demand (as evidenced by its current housing land supply of only 3.8 years, just 8 months after the adoption of the Local Development Plan). The development of new homes can also bring substantial economic benefits to local communities. For every 10 new homes in Wales, approximately 10 temporary direct construction jobs are supported and £205,000 per annum is generated in resident expenditure, some of which will help support local shops and services.A recurring theme that emerged during the MUD workshop was the health and well-being benefits that a Metro could bring to communities, not only in terms of encouraging commuters to walk or cycle to stops but also through providing greater choice and accessibility to parks, leisure and recreation areas. The Metro could therefore help to promote a “healthier Wales” – a key component of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.The South Wales Metro offers a unique opportunity to make a step change in the socio-economic future of the region, and a great hope for the project is that it will provide the driving spark for regeneration in the South Wales Valleys communities. However, we are under no illusions about the likely pitfalls and delays ahead. While the Metro should bring prosperity to the South Wales region as a whole, there will be winners and losers. Not every village and town will be able to have its own Metro stop, and deprived communities may have to wait longer to see the fruits of new investment. There is therefore a risk that, in addition to the challenge of funding the Metro, a lack of political support at the local level could serve to “de-rail” different elements of the project.A key message from the MUD workshop was that the Metro needs champions. It particularly needs built environment professionals to stand up for a new vision of South Wales in the face of the challenges to come. It was heartening to see so many of these people at the MUD event (a big thank you to Design Circle for organising such an inspiring day). However, it will also need “practical people” and risk-takers who are willing to advance the Metro project step-by-step, recognising and responding to opportunities that arise as part of the development and planning process.
 Cardiff Joint Housing Land Availability Study 2016: Statement of Common Ground (9 September 2016) NLP, The Economic Footprint of House Building in Wales (May 2015)