Noel Isherwood

The GRAFT – new to old

 Graft theory into practice

Enthusiasm for recent town building in the UK was set in  motion when 28 new towns were planned and built after WWII.

More recently, four zero carbon eco-towns never got off the ground. The Conservatives now want to upgrade 30 existing towns in the uk. Not to be beaten, Labour are postulating an unspecified number of new, new towns, if they are elected.

Utopia is evoked at times of significant electoral change. Images of cities descending from the heavens into fertile settings come to mind. Garden cities, new towns, eco-towns, urban villages, all bring to mind different  periods from our recent past. Not to be overlooked, is probably the most complete small new town built in the last 40 years, the urban extension to Dorchester, Poundbury. They all have ‘lessons learned’ to offer, some good, but many cautionary.

The frenzy of electioneering produces many promises and declarations, but will this prevent us from learning from these valuable lessons? Will the mistakes of the past be repeated? 

Utopian dreams are great. They simplify everything, helping to communicate ideas at speed. But in the rush to get from concept to construction, will we neglect to check whether the ladder is up against the right wall? Will the graft required to understand and fine tune the detail be omitted? Will this result in us building the diagram?

Will the graft required to understand and fine tune the detail be omitted? Will this result in ‘building the diagram’?

When complexity is not incorporated into the process, the result, which can look great on paper, can be a soulless and sterile environment. We know this because we have done it before. Its just, we do not need to do it again. 

Grafting may be necessary as we prepare for the next ‘wave’ of house building, promising 1.5m homes in 5 years if Labour wins. 

Grafting may also be necessary if new towns are to connect with existing settlements and conurbations. Not many new towns will be isolated, surrounded by countryside, as in the dream. Grafting then becomes a thing. 

Grafting new onto old can be a positive or a negative experience. 

Take two examples from life. 

1) Grafting new cloth onto an old garment.

Sewing an unshrunk piece of cloth onto an old garment is not recommended. ‘The new piece will pull away from the garment making the tear worse’ (Mark Chapter 2 – New Testament). It can make matters worse in planning, ending up with a bigger problem than you started with.

Pouring new wine into old wineskins is also likely to have an adverse outcome. New and old do not always work together well.

2) Grafting: New plant onto old stem.

With this example, grafting new onto old can have positive results for the new addition as well as the host. A new branch grafted onto an existing stem enables benefits not only for the root and stem, but also for the new branch grafted onto it. When the tissues combine, the plants grow together into one. There is a win-win result.

The New Town movement unleashed the power of the automobile and, before long, new development burst through town boundaries to become suburbia. This is now the context, rather like the old cloth, onto which new development is to be grafted.

How it is done can affect the quality of life for better or worse, for both the existing and the new communities. It can manifest in different forms including, infill sites, urban extensions walkable neighbourhoods or sprawl.

Much of 20th century housing development is considered ‘unsustainable’ because of its low density and because it was designed around the car. 

So it can be tempting to ignore it altogether when planning new schemes on newly established principles. But this can perpetuate the ‘zoned’ planning concept prevalent in the post war era. In this case, no real connections are made between the new and the old. Barriers between communities can become unbridgeable, much as an unshrunk cloth can create a bigger tear when attached to the old. Social and economic divides can thus be reinforced, even within a small town. 

One way to deal with growth is to replicate the same type of low density that already exists. This allows for the easy application of local standard parking criteria supporting the status quo for personal car use prioritisation. Cul-de-sac road layouts with limited connectivity persist despite increased awareness of sustainable principles. There are little, if any, mixed uses inserted as they cannot be supported below a certain density. This results in poor sense of place, reducing the desire to walk anywhere in the development or beyond, as it is not usually a fun experience. 

Grafting on settlement diagram – poor.

New cloth onto an old garment model; – the fine grained  permeability of the original  is  compromised by the  impermeable doughnut ring of 20th century  development.

Satellite out of town development adds to the pressures tearing apart the old cloth, physically, socially and economically. It continues the theme of car dependent environments where arterial road systems sever the fragile umbilical chords to the heart of the place.

Grafting: New plant onto old stem – purposefully integrated new compact settlement onto its low density neighbour. Benefits accrue to both neighbourhoods

The suburban status-quo can be argued for on the basis that there is poor public transport and so reducing parking standards is premature. But public transport service is calculated on population numbers before a development starts. In suburban areas the density is too low to justify an additional bus service. If this form of development persists, then delivering public transport will always be hard to justify.

To create sustainable connected places, higher densities should be the default basis for all new development, including suburban areas. In time, public transport will follow the gradual densification and population growth. This is not the best way to plan, but is a pragmatic response in the absence of more strategic planning.

What are the characteristics that make for a better symbiotic relationship between existing developments and the new developments grafted onto them? Something more ‘natural’, more like the grafted plant example?

A first step would be to strengthen all existing connections.

A first step would be to strengthen all existing connections, whether roads, lanes, footpaths, open green-space or water ways, to allow an easy passage between the two forms of settlement for flora, fauna and humans walking.  

A second important step is to provide adequate facilities or mixed uses, where possible, close to the borderline between the two places. This could be a store, pharmacy or local hub for example. This has a number of advantages. It can offer easily accessible services to both the existing community and the gradually growing new settlement. This offers the opportunity to establish good relations with the neighbours. But it also gives the shopkeeper an early chance of success from the get-go. Otherwise he or she would have to wait for the new development to complete in order to create the necessary footfall to start trading. If this were to be the case, the shopkeeper may decide not to take the risk of moving in for some time. Opening the shop becomes more unlikely as time moves on, as it is well known to be much harder to deliver mixed uses after a significant amount of residential development has been built. So either the shops become untenable in the first few years and owners move out or they never get delivered at all. 

A third, not necessarily final step, would be to increase density. Rather than approximating existing suburban density, calculate for an appropriate jump in density to deliver sustainable benefits that are impossible to provide without it. Briefly, these benefits include:

    • Mixed uses and the creation of ‘destinations’. See our  MUST blog – (Mixed Use Settlement Theory)
    • A better sense of place; more compact urban form; active frontages; defined public space through enclosure; safer places due to good natural surveillance. 
    • A higher number of homes are delivered more quickly, thus addressing the housing shortage.
    • Well connected; encouraging walking and cycling, where a good sense of place makes the experience pleasurable.
    • A good relationship between nature and the built form where increased density can more easily deliver better green infrastructure. 

When these principles are not applied in practice, the financial impact on the development means that few, if any, of the acknowledged benefits of sustainable development, can be delivered.

In the meantime, car share clubs can be encouraged to reduce the need for maximum car spaces in every new development. Electric bikes can allow for longer journeys than with ordinary bikes, especially where there are topographical challenges. Better bike storage facilities at rail and bus stations can encourage the use of what public transport already exists. Rather than waiting for all integrated public transport systems to catch up, creating great places to live is possible now.   

While the UK is desperate to build more houses, let us use this opportunity to create the best places we know how, right now. So why wait till the pressure becomes so great that the response becomes utilitarian, simply to satisfy an urgent political agenda. 

Good pedestrian and cycling access into and around a new development is as important as the vehicular access. 

The location of mixed uses on the movement network also makes a positive impact on entering a new place. It creates better sense of place, active frontages and more legibility. 

Our proposal for a senior living community with good connections and mixed uses.

Noel Isherwood Architects 

Let us help you discover the benefits of using GRAFT Theory as we discover again the value of thriving neighbourhoods and healthier life styles, connected with more human interaction.

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