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Housing crisis, what crisis, what next?

January 24, 2014

Housing is one of the fracture zones of the UK’s political-economic-social contract. Clearly we need more – but where, how, who is involved, under what conditions, and how much??

In the 1960-70s we managed to build houses at a rate of 400,000 per year. Now it’s about 125,000: Labour propose to up that to 200,000: but this still falls short of the estimated ‘housing need’ at 250,000 per year.  Of course at the maximum rate of housebuilding, history shows that large numbers of these were short-lived, in locations which rapidly turned dysfunctional, and in some cases were demolished only a decade later. And now we have a major pension fund (L&G) wanting to build ‘5 major new towns somewhere in the South East’: one can imagine in advance the local opposition, and wonder how a free-market thinking Coalition will manage this.

This short piece is a response and reflection – picking up on discussions in progress around the Wolfson Economics Prize on ‘Garden Cities’:[1] academic analysis of ‘low carbon transitions’ and ‘energy vulnerability’[2]: and following up strategic thinking on ‘beyond sustainable cities’.[3] All this is in the context of the national trauma of housing shortage / price inflation, which permeates society, unhinges the economy, and polarizes our cities, towns and villages.

Housing as items or commodities?

All these and more, show that housing is not only about units and material functions, but a much wider set of values.  A ‘linear’ mindset for housing quantity suited the great suburban expansions and slum clearances of the 20th century, both public and private sector: most of the time, the finance, technology, demographics and economics were in relative alignment. But such growth coalitions eventually came apart. Private sector housing was always vulnerable to the swings of the market, amplified by the credit which followed the deregulation of finance: with results such as half-finished ghost towns in Spain or Ireland, and burned out neighborhoods of ‘foreclosure’ in the USA.

Public housing in many countries struggled with design and technology failures, public finance and welfare problems, and an overload of social problems and transience.

Another model is the ‘adaptive’ free-market, winner-takes-all mindset. This tends to favor the hotspots of growth and value-added, and abandon areas of vulnerability and decline: if left unchecked, the result is urban sprawl, dereliction and segregation. An ‘adaptive’ settlement form in the UK gravitates to the suburban dwelling, where social, economic and technology factors are more or less aligned: but this suburban model has other failings – car dependency, economic vulnerability and social monoculture. In other conditions, the adaptive model is played out in the informal settlements around the world (slums, bidonvilles, favelas, barriadas…). Here there is creative enterprise and mutual aid – but also crime, unemployment, ethnic divides, and the insecurities of water, sanitation, energy and others.

Synergistic thinking for housing

So is a more inter-connected housing model possible, better suited for the social and economic complexity and ‘relational depth’, which makes up a ‘real’ liveable and resilient community?   With a systems / foresight view, a new agenda begins to emerge.[4]

Firstly, it’s about the deep-seated need for territory: the use of space, social control and identity of space. And if in urban settings the physical space is in short supply, then we have to look for social or cultural connections, to enable greater value from smaller more multi-functional spaces.  Secondly, it’s about a dwelling as a financial and investment asset: if credit-based ownership is vulnerable to inflation or speculation, then we look for shared or mutual types of collateral and finance, with better links from dwelling to community, and between different parts of the life-cycle. Both these link to the social / cultural community dimension: avoiding heavy-handed social engineering, this is about incentives for collaboration, to promote mutual aid, cultural diversity, re-investment and recirculation of resources, human and natural.

Such features can be seen in various examples: the co-housing model in Nordic countries: the social forums of Brasil: the Sustainable South Bronx of New York: alternative communities in Wales: or the Housing Company of Johannesburg. Each shows some form of collaborative value chains, which link builders with designers, financiers with residents, social with ecological enterprise, and residents with communities. Much of this inter-connected ‘social livelihood’ approach is now best practice for informal settlements: but it has still to translate to other levels of governance, and to other modes of housing production.

 How to finance a new settlement

The UK’s problem in building effective and acceptable new settlements, is political, financial and institutional.  Where suitable land is privately owned, there is a small army of consultants and agents and sub-lessors, all taking slices and bidding up the land price. If publicly owned, each department has a duty to maximize revenue: for example at Northstowe, 100 acres was transferred from the MoD to English Partnerships for £200 million, using up most of their regional budget. Only if land is acquired at low agricultural values, can the uplift due to planning permission be reinvested for infrastructure and services (as in Milton Keynes and similar). But this requires strong political action, with centralized and well-funded agencies, neither of which are popular at the moment.

In response we could think more laterally:  beyond centralized development corporations, what are the possibilities for other forms of collective organization, on the supply or demand side?  We have new kinds of self-organizing ‘enterprise models’ emerging in different domains – economic, ecological, cultural, education and other public services. The supply side of urban development is particularly long term, capital intensive, legally and financially complex: but a entrepreneurial approach to the demand side could add value, rather than extra cost.

One pathway is with the potential of social media to enable the growth of self-organizing networks and ‘communities of interest’, a.k.a. mutuals or cooperatives. This could bring commercial advantage in that the co-op is able to assemble members / buyers / tenants through social network markets: (kickstarter, crowd-funder etc). There would be scope for pre-purchase or pre-lets: linked to housing waiting lists etc: the co-op is then able to employ developers to do project management, land assembly, infrastructure etc. The financial outlook is then not so much about commercial risk, in which the landowner bids up the price:  rather a social project negotiation: in this the co-op brings the collective bargaining of its members, and as it’s locally based serving local needs, it brings the backing of the local authority with default powers of land purchase.

 Self-organizing development for self-organizing communities

If we are faced with a blank sheet or an empty landscape, is it possible for a city or settlement to emerge on synergistic lines?  In such a place the urban form and fabric would enable communities which are socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable.  This was the aspiration a century ago of the Garden City model, beloved of utopian planners and architects. But experience tells us that utopian blueprints are often flawed:  they assume that physical urban form is enough to drive progress in other domains: and they assume that the physical blueprint is fixed and final.

In historic times, there was a geographic dynamic of self-organization: a natural harbor or river crossing would generate a trading hub which then over time gathered other functions and services. In the present context of globalized supply chains, migration and networking, the dynamic ‘reason for being there’ is more volatile and vulnerable, focused on social quality of life or environment factors, or advanced technical skills and specialisms. New urban settlements are often driven more by external forces – population and housing numbers, translated into economic or political imperatives: and also by the dynamic of social aggregation / segregation (i.e. location choices for proximity to the like-minded).

The implication for us here is to look for ways in which urban form and fabric can enable other kinds of systems to self-organize, with creative learning and collaboration. This suggests that the urban form and fabric also needs qualities of self-organization, creative collaboration, and learning from feedback. Such qualities can often be seen in historic centers and other tourist destinations:  or in ‘good design’ of buildings which learn and adapt, with time depth and flexibility which grows with their inhabitants.[5] At the same time there is not one ‘true’ version of what is the urban fabric:[6]

From housing ‘spaces’, to liveable places

So what can be the new primary generators of ‘place’, as the multi-layer inter-connecting hub of a neighbourhood or district, around which other things revolve?   The social generator which is already common practice is the primary school, but maybe this is less so in an age of privatization and deregulation. Demographic ageing is another, not to suggest a mono-functional retirement town, rather to celebrate the growing numbers of senior citizens and to enable a range of social and economic opportunities and support services. The situation of the young in many countries shows a generation effect of flux and insecurity and volatility in jobs, careers, housing and social life.

The ecological generators start with landscape structure, a key to quality of life, especially on waterfronts where building densities and intensity can ramp up.  A more fundamental ecological driver is that of food production: as more people aspire to quality local food, with health and education benefits, this is a powerful logic for structuring the pattern of urban form. Economic generators can either provide business units for the present day economic system, or – possibly – might aim to think ahead, towards social enterprise mutual aid economies: networked micro-businesses: third-age socio-cultural economies: For each of these and more, the implications for urban form and building design might suggest a flexible, low-cost, variegated kind of structure which encourages self-organization and collaboration. This would also be in potential alignment with building design strategies which are relatively autonomous for energy, water, recycling, and telecoms: and where the engineering is focused on low-impact micro-climatic balance, rather than large heating / cooling loads.


Synergistic development pathways

Putting all this together, we can envisage a synergistic urban development pathway, which works on a continuous value-generation basis over a long term development cycle. Basic landscape and green-blue infrastructure is established: areas and patterns of production take shape around this: clusters of ‘garden-homes’ take shape alongside others with ‘home-gardens’. The over-arching principle is to enable different social groups to flourish each in their own way, while recognizing that diversity and interchange is the key to liveability.

For transport, the settlement size and location may justify a LRT or dedicated bus network: or otherwise may centre on cycling, electric cycles and city-vehicles which also act as storage for intermittent energy sources. The development economics is on a circular flow, where land values are held in on a mutual basis so that development gains can be reinvested. Much housing would also be on a cooperative co-housing or shared-equity model so that common resources can be managed. Would such a settlement be self-contained or self-sufficient? This isn’t really the issue, even if it were feasible, which seems unlikely.  The more significant goal is to enable locally those opportunities and resources which work best at the local level: a model for self-organizing development for self-organizing communities, inter-connecting the social, economic and ecological.

Written by Joe Ravetz 



[3] Ravetz, J, (2013), Introduction: from ‘sustainable’ city-regions to synergistic, Town & Country Planning, Vol 8(10):402-407

[4] Ravetz, J, (2013), Urban futures – what will we need to know? Town & Country Planning, Vol 8(10):443-408

[5]Brand S, 1994: How Buildings Learn: what happens after they’re built? Viking Press, NY

[6] See the Finnish ‘3-fabric’ scheme at

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