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Learn How to Love NIMBY and Build More Homes

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Learn How to Love NIMBY and Build More Homes

September 9, 2017
Urban PolicyInfrastructure & Transportation


Editor's note: The following is the forth chapter of the book Urban Policy Frontiers published by the Manhattan Institute.

Create Streets[1] is a London-based social enterprise that is part of a movement trying to help solve many of the problems responsible for Britain’s chronic housing shortages. In a nutshell: the movement challenges government planning authorities and industry practice whose notions of what is desirable or permissible are outdated at best and, at worst, startlingly at variance with—even contemptuous of—what people really want. We are starting to change the question from “How do we build more homes?” to “How do we make new homes more popular?” Only by learning how to love the NIMBY phenomenon can the U.K. overcome popular resistance to, and rejection of, unwanted designs and build enough homes in which NIMBYs’ children can live.

The incident that confirmed my resolution to leave a secure, well-paid job as a banker and set up Create Streets happened over four years ago at the Aylesbury Estate[2] in South London, a few miles from Westminster. Built between 1963 and 1977, the Aylesbury Estate is a brutalist series of concrete slab blocks providing 2,750 units of mostly public housing. At the time she moved in, one young mother commented: “It’s like a prison, isn’t it, all concrete.”[3] The Aylesbury Estate has long enjoyed a grim reputation for social isolation and the stark failures of modernist town planning.[4]

One morning, a local community organizer asked me to spend a few hours with a group of largely Eritrean and Somali mums on the estate, together with an urban designer. There were plans to regenerate (rebuild) the estate, and we’d been asked to help residents think about what they would like done, independently of the formal planning and design process.

We showed the residents pictures of housing in New York, Paris, and London, all carefully chosen to be at higher densities than those of the estate and yet lower-rise, more beautifully and carefully articulated, and better connected with the wider neighborhood. Their emotional reaction in favor of that built form, of beautiful places, was formidable. “Why can’t we build streets like that?” one resident asked.

Later, another incident brought dramatically home just how wide the gap was between what most people like and what the British design, planning, and housing process seems able to provide. In January 2015, Create Streets participated in a short study of how community engagement had been run for an estate regeneration in East London. The process had been one of what one might term responsive consultation (“This is what we’re proposing—what do you think?”) rather than true engagement (“What do you like?”). The requirements of the local plan and of a labyrinth set of rules had trumped true resident preferences. Meanwhile, commercial analysis sent back the same message: “Build as much as you can. So constrained is supply that we can sell anything that you can build many times over.”

The tenants had therefore never been asked what they liked best and what they most wanted. The advisor to the tenants (paid for by their charitable landlord) was surprised when this issue was raised. “Why do you ask those questions?” he wanted to know. We asked because the answer from tenants was a stunningly emphatic preference for traditional streets with small private gardens. “Terraced houses just like in the old days ... the old terraced houses were fabulous ... we had little yards and we’d talk over the back fences ... you could pop over the road... such a strong community.” (“Terraced house” is British English for what Americans call a “row house.”)

The architect of the East London estate had said that maximizing open space and river views had driven the entire design. When we asked tenants if they would trade some of this for a more conventional urban form, the answer was a resounding yes. Given the size of the estate and the densities being targeted, something much closer to the apparent preference of the community would have been possible (four- or five-story terraces of narrow houses and flats) but had not been considered. The architect explained to us, in the presence of senior government officials, that he had not been able to meet residents’ preference for streets of terraced houses: “Of course we couldn’t do that; we wouldn’t have got planning [permission] ... The council would have insisted on open spaces. You just can’t build houses like that anymore, all the space standards, all the rules.”

In Britain and elsewhere, the unpopularity of new buildings, design assumptions, the resistance to development, constrained land supply, high prices, well-intentioned but unhelpful rules, and market overinterpretations of these rules have led to a noxious cocktail of a collapsing planning system and a failing housing market with vertiginous barriers to entry.

New homes are not popular. Amazingly, two-thirds of British adults say that they would never consider buying one, and only 21% say that a new home is their preferred option.[5] Hardly surprisingly, we don’t build enough. The politics just isn’t there.

A crucial step in rectifying this situation is to start building the kind of homes in which real people want to live. For the right type of home on the right type of street in the right type of neighborhood, people will fall in love with, argue for, and buy homes at much higher densities and at a higher price. Government needs to understand this reality, not subvert it. We need to learn to love the NIMBY and accommodate the preferences of tenants and potential homeowners.

What Do People Like?

It’s a commonplace among designers that style is purely a matter of unknowable personal taste, with the sophisticate’s preference for burnished steel as valid as (indeed, more valid than) the petit bourgeois liking for sash windows or red bricks. But what most people do like architecturally is hardly unknowable; rather, it is remarkably predictable. In every survey of British preferences that we have conducted or have been able to find, there is a strong, very strong, or overwhelming preference for what might be termed a more historically referenced style. People seem to care far more about a “sense of place” (buildings should fit in with their surroundings) than a “sense of time” (buildings must stand for today’s zeitgeist).

In 1989, 99% of the letters sent to Prince Charles, in response to his antimodernist television program “Vision of Britain” (later published as a book), were supportive.[6] A 2001 BBC list of “Britain’s Worst Buildings” was entirely composed of modernist or postmodernist tower and slab blocks dating from the 1960s to the present day.[7] A 2004 list of the 10 worst and 10 best buildings in Britain spontaneously given by a sample of 2,000 also listed no recent building in the “Best Buildings” list and named exclusively recent buildings among the 10 worst buildings list.[8] A 2005 survey found very similar opinions.[9]

This evidence is consistent with other data over many years. Research from 1994 found that 67% would “prefer an older-looking property or copy of an older design.” In 1997, the Halifax Building Society interviewed 302 intending and recent house buyers: only 12% wanted to buy a “more innovative and up-to-date in appearance” new house. A 1998 survey asked if “old styles are right for new houses” and “new houses should not imitate old houses”: 63.5% thought that old styles were right for new houses, and 15.5% did not; 54% thought that new houses should imitate old houses, and 25% did not.[10

None of these questions or surveys (and I could cite more) had any visual prompts, so different respondents will have interpreted them differently. Nevertheless, they paint a not-inconsistent picture of 60%–80% support for a less self-consciously assertive approach to design.

The only way of overcoming uncertainties in the use of vocabulary is to use pictures. At least five pieces of recent research have used selected visual material to assess architectural preferences—all with consistent results.[11

For example, a 2005 YouGov survey asked 1,042 respondents to select a preferred nonresidential building from a choice of four, in answer to the question: “Please imagine a new building is planned to be built near where you live. Four different designs are proposed. Please look at the designs below. Which one would you most like to be built near you?” The illustrations (Figure 1) show new buildings of a similar height, size, and orientation to the street. The results: 77% of respondents who selected a design chose traditional architecture (2 and 3); and 23% chose contemporary buildings (1 and 4).

A 2015 Ipsos-MORI poll commissioned by Create Streets asked respondents if, in principle, they supported the building of new homes on brownfield land (previously developed but now vacant) near where they lived. The poll found that 64% of adults supported the building of new homes locally on brownfield land, and 14% opposed. Respondents were then shown five photos illustrating different types of housing (Figure 2). For each, they were asked if they would support or oppose the building of 10 similar-style homes in their local area. The most conventional in form, style, and building materials won 75% and 73% support. Less conventional, more innovative homes won 23% and 34% support. Designs that respond to people’s preferences can materially change support for new homes. Among the 14% who opposed building “in principle,” half changed their mind for the most popular design option.[12]

Why the preference for more traditional design? Research that Create Streets conducted in 2014 for the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community (based on participants in British community-engagement projects over 15 years) implied strongly that most of us crave a “sense of place” that, many feel, most contemporary housing just fails to provide.[13]

These visual preferences are not necessarily for low-density housing. For example, in survey work that we carried out in 2014 (a favorite-streets survey), respondents opted, almost without exception, for higher-density terraced streets over more suburban forms.[14] When the British real-estate firm Savills calculated the potential housing numbers from a conventional, street-based approach with the regeneration of postwar housing estates, it estimated an increase of 54,000 to 360,000 new homes while keeping all existing social tenants on site.[15] And in the right place for the right urban form, people will pay more for higher densities.

What Will People Pay For?

Pricing data corroborate research on architectural preferences. The Halifax house-price data series shows that the prices of “traditional” pre-1919 homes in a “conventional” street format in the U.K. have risen 54% faster since 1983 than their post-1960s equivalents.[16] This is even more marked in high-growth areas such as London and the South East. The prices of “traditional” pre-1919 homes in a “conventional” street format in London have risen by 1,284% since 1983. Their more modern contemporaries rose by half as much. Older homes are worth 50%–70% more as well.[17] Meanwhile, research by a housing firm shows how historic parts of London in well-connected, high-density terraced streets and squares are more valuable, all other things being equal, than areas that are not.[18] An analysis by a British bank in 2005 calculated that the premium paid for living in a pre-1900 property, compared with a 1945–59 property, ranged from 8% to 34%. By contrast, properties built in the 1960s and 1970s sold at a discount to the postwar price. New buildings sold at a 12% premium.[19]

British architectural preferences are not peculiar. A recent Dutch study by Edwin Buitelaar and Frans Schilder showed the effects that various architectural styles had on house prices.[20] Its data set comprised 60,000 housing transactions from 1995 to 2014 in 86 urban extensions built across the Netherlands.

The styles analyzed were grouped and defined as “neo-traditional,” “referring to traditional,” and “nontraditional,” based on the shape of the building, composition of the facade, and details. If all three were traditional, the style was categorized as neo-traditional; if one or two were missing, it was categorized as “referring to traditional.” If none of the elements were present, it was categorized as “nontraditional.” Two architects performed the analysis.

The results were quietly compelling. The models suggest that significant and predictable price premiums were associated with the two “retro” styles, compared with the nontraditional one. This was true even though many designers regard the Dutch housing markets as far more contemporary and less conservative than the British housing market.[21] The analysis showed that:

  • Pure neo-traditional houses sold at a premium of 15% to nontraditional housing
  • Houses that referred to traditional design sold at a premium of 5% to nontraditional housing
  • The price premium of neo-traditional designs did not reflect residents’ higher incomes
  • For smaller, less valuable houses, the price premium of neo-traditional over nontraditional housing was slightly higher than for larger houses
  • Various tests and evidence taken from Dutch builders strongly implied that the build costs were not higher and that higher costs could not be the reason for the higher prices of more traditional homes

Other studies have also shown a strong association between design features of a home that might be expected to reflect more conventional design and higher values. For example, Richard Cebula’s 2009 study of detached homes (known as single-family homes in the U.S.) sold in Savannah, Georgia, from 2000 to 2005 found that the use of bricks or stucco as a building material was associated with 24% and 35% value increases over the wood and aluminum alternatives. This was notably more than adding another bedroom (6%), bathroom (10.5%), private courtyard (17%), or pool (17%).[22]

Of course, values are not just a function of architectural style but of wider urban form. How are buildings and space associated? Are there conventional urban blocks with clear backs and fronts? Our forthcoming literature review finds that most people will pay more for a well-connected property away from noise, pollution, and one-way streets and within walking distance of greenery and other local amenities. Retail shops with ready pedestrian access add value. So do good schools—sometimes astonishingly so. In the right market, luxury towers can add value—sometimes huge value—within this framework. However, they can also be unpopular and reduce livability and neighborhood value.[23] Their economics hitherto have been questionably sustainable outside expensive developments with very high land values in central locations. Locally referenced vernacular architecture certainly can and probably does add more value. This value uplift can be significant and, in the limited research to date, is more significant than views over water.[24]

Studies in the U.S. and the U.K. have found that consumers, particularly prosperous consumers, are normally willing to pay a premium to live in a higher-density “new urbanist” development, compared with a more normal and lower-density suburban development. The premium per unit can be substantial. For example, Charles Tu and Mark Eppli studied the price premium related to what they termed “traditional neighborhood development,” compared with conventional suburban developments.[25] Their research focused on detached homes in three American developments: Kentlands in Maryland, Laguna West in California, and Southern Village in North Carolina. They analyzed 5,350 housing transactions using hedonic regression. These developments were chosen because they had built at least 150 homes by 1997, had no or very few second-home owners, and could be contrasted with more typical newly built lower-density suburbs. The confident conclusion was that “the price premium for new urbanist housing exists across geographic areas,” though to differing degrees. In Kentlands, the price premium was 14.9%; in Laguna West, 4.1%; and in Southern Village, it was 10.3%.

Other research has echoed these findings. In a 2003 study, researchers analyzed 48,070 detached house prices in Washington County, Portland, Oregon.[26] They controlled for location, public service levels, physical attributes of a home (number of bedrooms, overall size), proximity to greenery, and socioeconomic variables (though those were not found to be significant). They found a $24,255 premium (over 15%) for homes in the (new urbanist) Orenco Station neighborhood, compared with a standardized suburban neighborhood representing an aggregate of all other Washington County developments, despite the fact that typical lots were smaller in Orenco—on average, 3,500 square feet, compared with 8,675 square feet elsewhere.

Higher density, in other words, can sell at a premium for new developments. Can the same pattern emerge for historic cities? It can. We are currently conducting a major analysis project into predictable correlations between urban form, poverty, and value in six British cities. We have been able to source “big data” (more than 160,000 data points) on items such as the presence of greenery, the nature of the street pattern, the age of buildings, transport connections, the proximity of high-quality green space, traffic levels, and the proximity of buildings of historical interest. We are finding, particularly strongly for London, very predictable associations between older, quite high-density areas with a finely grained street pattern with high valuations and lower levels of poverty.

Areas with the highest levels of poverty are those with a high population density but also a high proportion of unbuilt land—the “blocks in space,” Le Corbusier–influenced urban form that was prevalent, particularly in Europe, for much of the postwar period. An analogous pattern emerges for sales values. London neighborhoods with a high “intersection density” (a measure of more conventional streets and shorter urban blocks) command value premiums of nearly 12%, all else being equal. Proximity to protected heritage buildings or a high proportion of pre-1900 buildings is associated with value premiums of 10% and 12%, respectively—again, holding other factors constant.[27]

It is dangerous to get into causation too confidently, but what Londoners like and will pay for is very clear. Older buildings in oldfashioned street patterns with fairly high (though not astronomical) densities are reliably associated with higher sales values. Most theories and analyses of economic geography focus on connectivity and green space. They argue that value is primarily a driver of centrality, access to income, and access to green space. Our research does not disagree that these factors are important but finds that, certainly at a neighborhood level, the nature of the urban form and of buildings can be equally, or more, important.

Can Design Make You Happy?

Prospective home buyers care enormously about what a neighborhood looks like and about the external appearance of a house. Research into British preferences by Savills found that those were the top two factors on their list—followed by good schools (Figure 3).

But why do people care? Do popular design and a more conventional urban form make you happier? Or are house buyers making a huge mistake? The current architectural consensus is that they are and that people overestimate the importance of architecture when choosing a property and estimating its likely impact on their happiness. Some research would appear to confirm this.

One study of mental health on a Greenwich housing estate, for example, did not find that “liking the look of the estate” was correlated with well-being, though the range of possible preferences was not wide.[28] However, if we lift our gaze a bit from the home to the neighborhood, town, or city, we get a dramatically different answer. Environmental psychologists have shown that alongside green space and soft edges, we enjoy gentle surprises and pleasant memories.[29] We dislike sharp edges, darkness, and sudden loud noises.[30] The strong preferences that most of us show for a more locationally and historically referenced architecture are therefore psychologically credible, even sensible. We choose our homes and experience the world around us emotionally as well as intellectually.[31]

In a remarkable series of studies, Yodan Rofè has conducted surveys on how people feel in certain parts of a neighborhood. Respondents are asked to rate whether they feel very good, good, bad, or very bad in certain places. The results: people felt better in the types of place with more greenery, more complicated elevations, and, yes, a more conventional form of architecture and urban form. Aligned with the findings above, there is remarkable predictability of response. Location alone, as opposed to social profile or individual tendencies, predicted 69% of responses. Personal preferences or background colored responses but did not drive them.[32] The potential effect of the beauty of urban areas on health, behavior, and happiness is also starting to emerge. In one recent American study, pedestrians in front of an “active” and attractive facade were nearly five times more likely to offer assistance to apparently lost tourists than were those in front of an inactive and ugly facade.[33] In a recent British project, researchers at the University of Warwick have taken advantage of the power of crowd-sourcing to gauge 1.5 million ratings of the “scenicness” of 212,000 pictures. These findings were then compared to self-reported health from the 2011 census. Importantly, researchers found that the “differences in reports of health can be better explained by the ‘scenicness’ of the local environment than by measurements of greenspace.”[34] One researcher commented:

This is a fascinating finding. Just because a place is green does not compel us to feel better on its own. It seems to be that the beauty of the environment, as measured by scenicness, is of crucial importance. Our results suggest that the beauty of our everyday environment might have more practical importance than was previously believed. In order to ensure the wellbeing of local inhabitants, urban planners and policymakers might find it valuable to consider the aesthetics of the environment when embarking upon large projects to build new parks, housing developments or highways. Our findings imply that simply introducing greenery, without considering the beauty of the resulting environment, might not be enough.[35]

The research team also noted that beauty and attractive aesthetics seemed to be more than a matter of fields and trees: “Our colour analysis also reveals that scenicness does not simply constitute large areas of green. Indeed, we find that the most scenic areas do not contain the most greenery, but rather contain high proportions of blue, grey and brown.”[36] A range of American surveys have also found strong links between the perceptions of a place’s physical beauty and overall place happiness, attachment to the city, community satisfaction, and physical and mental health.[37]

More research will help us understand this phenomenon, but from the evidence to date on popularity, environmental psychology and “scenicness,” and health and emotions, I conclude that architecture and perceptions of beauty really do matter.

A wider study of the links between urban form and well-being finds strong evidence of a sweet spot between the extremes of outer suburbia and uber-density. Well-connected walkable streets nearly always at human scale, with green space interwoven throughout, with variety within a pattern, and with at least a good proportion of the architecture seeming as though it belongs locally tend to correlate with people being happier, walking more, knowing more of their neighbors, and not feeling stressed or oppressed by their surroundings. Any politician, planner, developer, or architect who says otherwise is wrong.[38]

What Will People Support in Practice?

This is why the fairly conventional tastes of most of us are so relevant: the public will support development far more readily if they like the look of it. Most people know what they like, actively look for it, and will pay more for it. They also seem to be happier walking through and living in a city or neighborhood that they aesthetically like. Proposing more conventionally conceived and designed housing is nearly always more popular with the general public—sometimes spectacularly so.[39]

In a 2004 survey of residents’ views about the redevelopment of the failed 40-year-old Packington Estate, 91% of respondents wanted no development greater than five stories, 81% opposed proposals to build up to eight stories, and 86% wanted a new development to reinstate the traditional street pattern.[40] In 2007, over 80% of residents of one of the iconic British multistory housing developments, Robin Hood Gardens, wanted them pulled down.[41] In 2007, the chairwoman of the tenants’ association of the Aylesbury Estate in South London, also scheduled for demolition and for rebuilding with more flats and multistory housing, commented: “I’d rather live in a council house.”[42] Of course, many other factors influence local views of estate regeneration, including the economic offer to tenants and the honesty of consultation. The proposed process for moving from old to new homes also plays a crucial role in garnering or not garnering support.[43] But people’s preference for conventional design and form still shines through.

In 2012, the East London Community Land Trust, consulting on how to develop the site of a former hospital, St. Clements, near Mile End, found a clear preference from the members for conventional houses in conventional streets.[44] One objection made in cases such as Affinity Sutton’s (foolish) 2016 attempt to demolish the Edwardian Sutton Estate in Chelsea was the preference to keep the existing buildings over the proposed new development (with 350 signatures of protest versus only about 25 supporters).

Create Street’s own experience working with communities in London revealed consistently strong opposition not to development per se but to the type of very large and very high buildings that increasingly typifies London building and regeneration. We have found strong support for more conventional, streetbased developments. An example: in summer 2014, the Mount Pleasant Association asked 258 residents to compare a “blocks in space” design for the Mount Pleasant site in central London with our more conventional and street-based approach (Figure 4). There was 99% preference for the higher-density streetsbased approach backed up by many of the verbal responses we received. As one neighbor put it: “The whole of London would fight for Mount Pleasant Circus.”[45]

Over the last three years, Create Streets has helped several London communities conduct a range of polls to discern local preferences for built form in their neighborhoods. The results are consistent and further demonstrate with sharp clarity that medium-rise developments can secure not just the passive acceptance but the active support of London communities:

  • In March 2015, in a survey of 147 residents near Oval in central London, 92% wanted streets and squares of the local areas to act as a template for development, and only 8% agreed that the modernist high-rise towers along the river should be the template. The survey reported that 91% wanted any development to be eight or fewer stories. Only 9% supported the development of higher than nine stories.[46]
  • In July 2015, in a survey of 184 residents in Kingston in South West London, 83% supported a development of a town center site at nine or fewer stories. Only 17% supported development higher than 10 stories. More generally, there was 88% preference for a “typical” London neighborhood as opposed to a high-rise or modern shopping center, and 88% preference for the historic parts of Kingston.[47]
  • In 2016, in a survey of 711 respondents in Wimbledon in South West London (over 1% of the local population), 96% liked historic brick buildings or Portland stone buildings best. Seventy-eight percent wanted necessary development to follow a tightly grained network of small streets and public spaces. In contrast, only 3% wanted to see large and high buildings with large open spaces. Only 1% wanted development to be focused on large shopping centers. Eighty-six percent of respondents wanted new development to be terraced flats above shops (55%) or mansion blocks above shops (31%). Ninety-one percent of respondents wanted a height limit for Wimbledon Town Centre at up to four or up to seven stories.[48

It is worth reemphasizing that the built form that these communities are exponentially strongly preferring are not low-density or inappropriate for cities. Finely grained, medium-rise urban forms of streets and terraced (or row) houses and flats can easily reach very high densities of 80–220 homes per hectare.[49] People will support density; they just won’t support some types of density.

The “Design Disconnect”: Men Are from Mars, Professionals Are from Venus

Nearly all design and planning professionals in the U.K. would disagree with, or question the relevance of, nearly everything written or referenced in this paper so far. We have come to the “design disconnect” between professionals and the rest of us.

In 1987, a young psychologist was conducting an experiment into how repeated exposure to an image changed perceptions of it. A group of volunteer students were shown photographs of unfamiliar people and buildings and were asked to rate them in terms of attractiveness. Some volunteers were architects, and some were not. During the experiment, a fascinating finding became clear. While everyone had similar views on which people were attractive, the architecture and nonarchitecture students had diametrically opposed views on what was or was not an attractive building. The architecture students’ favorite building was everyone else’s least favorite, and vice versa. The disconnect became more extreme with experience. The longer that architecture students had been studying, the more they disagreed with the general public on what constitutes an attractive building.[50]

The young psychologist was David Halpern, who now heads the British Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights team. More than two decades later, he is very clear that “architecture and planning does not have an empirical, evidence-based tradition in the sense that ... sciences would understand. There are very few studies that ever go back to look at whether one type of dwelling or another, or one type of office or another, has a systematic impact on how people behave, or feel, or interact with one another.”[51]

If Halpern is right, the process of a professionally derived borough plan, of planning consent and of expert design review, is the worst way imaginable to build our towns and cities. The very act that confers value on a site (the granting of planning permission) is a process whose key players are likely to be the worst judges of what people want or like in the built environment.

But is Halpern still right? Perhaps more than two decades of market pressure since the state largely removed itself from house-building in the U.K. has obliged the profession to value what its clients, not their training, appreciate. A glance at the criteria of architectural prizes is not reassuring. Few, if any, place value on evidence of popularity or provable correlations with well-being. Certainly, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ prizes specifically demand evidence on sustainability but not on what members of the wider public think.[52] A 2004 study into attitudes toward housing conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that nearly 60% of the public disliked flats. Only a little over 20% of “experts” shared that view.[53] Peer-reviewed surveys have found that architects fail to recognize that their understanding of good housing may not be shared by residents, consistently disagreeing with the general public on matters of good versus bad design and unable to predict the public’s real preferences.[54]

Create Streets conducted an informal poll on social media and found a sharp and important distinction between what non–design specialists and design specialists would like to see built: 25% of supporters of two options that were more popular worked in planning, architecture, or creative arts; 46% of supporters of two less popular options worked in planning, architecture, or creative arts. People are from Mars. Professionals are still from Venus.[55]

The melancholy implication of this is that architectural awards are a good indicator of popularity—but only if you invert them. We are aware of nine architectural or planning prizes awarded to the two least popular options. We are not aware of any architectural or planning awards garnered by the most popular option.

The preferences of too many in the design and planning establishment palpably influence what actually happens. In a 2014 design meeting for a major London site, the “traditional” built form of conventional developments was openly ridiculed and dismissed as unworthy of discussion, even though it is what the public most likes.[56] Similarly, at a 2015 meeting of senior officials and architects at which Create Streets was present, the director of Housing and Regeneration at an important London borough spoke (without apparent irony) of the “horrid Edwardian streets that most of us live in” and complained of “dreary terraces.”

When a senior and respected decision maker not only disagrees with the vast majority of the public but is openly contemptuous of their views, it must be time to ask if the whole public procurement and planning prioritization process needs dramatic rebuilding from the bottom up. Certainly, in public-sector design competitions for city-center development and estate regeneration, marks are routinely (and, in our experience, always) awarded materially for “innovation of design.” In at least two cases that we are aware of, this was despite the explicit request from councillors that a more conventional, even traditional, design would be more appropriate.

Innovation is not necessarily a bad thing; often it is excellent, especially in technology and construction. But purely aesthetic innovations imposed on people against their wishes are hard to square with any notion of democracy.


Where does this analysis lead us? Nearly all societies have some sort of planning regulation—London has since at least the 12th century.[57] And this is for very good reasons. What person A does on the land he owns next to person B can materially affect person B. Managing this is a legitimate role for the state. At any rate, as a statement of fact, it is a role that most states find themselves undertaking. The trick is to do it in a way that does not choke off supply or popular support for new housing.

The British approach has spectacularly failed to accomplish this except by propping up supply with more state-building than most other countries find necessary. The modern British planning system is unashamedly 1940s socialist in intent. But it has been very common law in its implementation (endless nuance and case law on what is and is not acceptable in an ever multiplying and evolving set of circumstances)—arguably the worst of all possible combinations.

Seventy years of the British legal system, with its multitude of applications, appeals, precedents, and judgments, has produced a system that combines a view on nearly everything and utters certainty on nearly nothing. Many regard this as a good thing. It is certainly very English and very “flexible” (a word used with pride in many planning or design seminars). It also means that what can be built on a plot of land (density, design, use) is far more open to debate and judgment than in many other countries.[58

This matters because it increases planning risk. The problem is not planning per se; it is unpredictability. How much you can pay for land is uncertain, and what you can build on it is uncertain. In many cases, whether you can build is uncertain. What you need to spend to find out and “win” planning permission (a telling use of words) is a major cost. All this creates highly nontrivial barriers to entry to development, far greater than many landowners or developers face in other countries, including in parts of the U.S.

In the U.K., Create Streets[59] is trying to change the argument from one in which the free-market Right attacks the concept of planning and the statist Left attacks the concept of private developers to one where both accept the idea that some sort of planning control is a fact of life and instead start asking, “How can we make the system more popular, more accessible, and more predictable in what it permits?” How do we solve the design disconnect, and what type of new housing would minimize NIMBYism? How do we efficiently discover and adumbrate popular preferences at the local level so as to create a fast track through the planning system? We are arguing that the planning system needs to get better at systematically understanding what local people like and embedding this simply and visually into the local codes for an area.[60]

Why do codes need to be visual? Some designers, planners, and developers have increasingly found that setting out ideas about how streets, pavements, blocks, and building facades will work visually, as opposed to verbally, aids clarity and makes it much easier for communities and nonspecialists to feed in their ideas and preferences—to say “what things will look like round here” and “what type of streets and homes” we want to build.

These visualizations can be done in various ways and with differing levels of detail. They are often (but not always) known as pattern books, form-based design codes or protocols, and sometimes as design guides. Pattern books or design codes define all or some of the range of possible plots scales, shape, materials, layouts, urban forms, street, and style of all development in a certain area. Advocates have made several key arguments in favor of pattern books and design codes, including:

  • They are easier for laymen to comprehend, permitting more effective community engagement and consensus.
  • Being so clear, they permit greater certainty of delivery and outcome to any community and also to landowners and investors.
  • They make it easier to deliver “variety within a pattern” by permitting a range of builders, architects, and designers to work within a consistent framework (“one code, many hands”), which should lead to better places and higher values.
  • Greater potential variety enables smaller firms and, indeed, self-builders to take a more substantial role.

Many of these arguments appear to be true. A 2006 U.K. government assessment of 15 design codes contrasted to four noncoded approaches, conducted by Matthew Carmona of University College London, found that “where codes are being implemented on site, schemes have been delivering enhanced sales values and increased land values.”[61]

In addition, the rapidly growing capacity of technological and online tools (for image-enhanced online polling and the like) is making it ever easier and cheaper to discover local preference and to understand and set popular local templates.

Finally, the government is listening.[62] In a recent major British Government Housing Strategy document (a so-called White Paper), the British government accepted much of our underlying analysis and logic. There were proposals to encourage, support, and fund local communities to work up better visual tools for what they like and won’t like, and to embed these into local plans to permit more certainty about what could and could not be delivered in light of such documents.

Create Streets is starting to work with the U.K. government and with some local councils and communities to implement this vision. We hope shortly to be designing an online visual poll on behalf of a London borough as to what residents do and don’t like in their streets and buildings. To the best of our knowledge, it will be the first one ever carried out by the public sector in the U.K.

Much of the way of thinking about cities and facades that we are starting to push onto the political agenda is derived from America. For example, the modern renaissance of pattern books is largely American. They have been championed by bodies such as the FormBased Codes Institute.[63]

There are now more than 400 form-based codes in U.S. and Canadian cities. In 2010, Miami became the first major U.S. city to replace its historical zoning code with a form-based code; Cincinnati and El Paso have done likewise. An official in Nashville commented:

Nashville has adopted form-based codes for over 30 districts, corridors, and neighborhoods. The direct result has been an increase in property values and a much greater desire to develop in areas with form-based codes due to the certainty that the code provides the developer and the community.[64]

Ben Derbyshire, incoming president of the Royal Institute of British Architecture, said that “it is actually quite difficult to design streets which are streets in the sense that citizens will recognise.”[65] It is time to put that right.


  1. Based in London, Create Streets researches the links between built form and well-being, long-term economic value, and public support for new housing. It works with British community groups, public and private landowners, developers, and investors to put their work into practical application.
  2. A housing estate is roughly comparable with what in the U.S. is called a housing development. The residences in a housing estate might be private or public. In Britain, they are disproportionately blocky and high-rise.
  3. “Our Streets,” a BBC series. The woman quoted appeared in the first episode, broadcast on June 13, 2012.
  4. See Nicholas Boys Smith and Alex Morton, Create Streets: Not Just Multi-Storey Estates (London: Policy Exchange and Create Streets, 2013), pp. 41–43.
  5. See Royal Institute of British Architects, Improving Housing Quality: Unlocking the Market (London: Royal Institute of British Architects, 2009), p. 8; HomeOwnersAlliance, “In the Rush to Build More Homes—Worry That New Homes Standards Are Slipping,” June 17, 2015.
  6. HRH Prince of Wales, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture (London: Doubleday, 1989), p. 9. Of the remaining 1%, half were qualified in their support and half were opposed.
  7. Boys Smith and Morton, Create Streets, p. 28.
  8. Robert Adam, “Architectural Preferences in the UK—A Digest of Recent Research,” p. 1 (n.p., 2005; available on request).
  9. Lynsey Hanley, Estates—An Intimate History (London: Granta Books, 2007), p. 118.
  10. Adam, “Architectural Preferences,” pp. 1–3.
  11. See Nicholas Boys Smith, Heart in the Right Street (London: Create Streets, 2016), sec. 9.8, for information on all of them.
  12. Ipsos-MORI, “Design Influences Public Support for New Build Homes,” June 6, 2015. The survey interviewed 1,000 adults (aged 15 and older) across Britain, face-to-face, in-home in May 2015.
  13. See Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, “Housing Communities: What People Want,” 2014.
  14. Create Streets, Pop-Up Poll, May 2014.
  15. Savills Research Report to the Cabinet Office, “Completing London’s Streets,” Jan. 7, 2016, p. 4.
  16. Lloyds Banking Group, Halifax House Price Index, accessed Dec. 2013.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Savills Research, Residential Development, “Spotlight on Development Layout,” Nov. 2010.
  19. Nationwide Building Society, “Nationwide Price Index: What Adds Value?” Apr. 2014.
  20. Edwin Buitelaar and Frans Schilder, “The Economics of Style: Measuring the Price Effect of Neo-Traditional Architecture in Housing,” Real Estate Economics 45, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 7–27.
  21. I have been told on several occasions by British-practicing architects and planners that the Dutch public does not suffer from the same stylistic conservative biases as the British public.
  22. Richard J. Cebula, “The Hedonic Pricing Model Applied to the Housing Market of the City of Savannah and Its Savannah Historic Landmark District,” Review of Regional Studies 39, no. 1 (Jan. 2009): 9–22.
  23. Boys Smith, Heart in the Right Street, pp. 80–85.
  24. See Nicholas Boys Smith, Alessandro Venerandi, and Kieran Toms, Beyond Location: Understanding the Economics of Place in the Human City (forthcoming, 2017).
  25. Charles C. Tu and Mark Eppli, “An Empirical Examination of Traditional Neighborhood Development,” Real Estate Economics 29, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 485–501.
  26. Yan Song and Gerrit-Jan Knapp, “New Urbanism and Housing Values: A Disaggregate Assessment,” Journal of Urban Economics 54, no. 2 (Sept. 2003): 218–38.
  27. Boys Smith, Venerandi, and Toms, Beyond Location.
  28. Annette Chu, Alice Thorne, and Hilary Guite, “The Impact of the Physical and Urban Environment on Mental Well-Being,” Mental Health 120, no. 12 (Dec. 2006): 1117–26.
  29. W. Richard Walker, John J. Skowronski, and Charles P. Thompson, “Life Is Pleasant—and Memory Helps to Keep It That Way!” Review of General Psychology 7, no. 2 (June 2003): 203–10.
  30. Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz, eds., Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999); Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), p. 30.
  31. See Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa, eds., Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015). On the role of emotion in choosing homes, see Royal Institute for British Architecture, “The Way We Live Now,” 2012, pp. 4–5, 10–12.
  32. Yodan Rofè, “Mapping People’s Feelings in a Neighborhood: Technique, Analysis and Applications,” Planum—European Online Journal of Urbanism, 2004.
  33. Happy Seattle, Editable Urbanism Project, Mar. 2015.
  34. Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe, Tobias Preis, and Helen Susannah Moat, “Quantifying the Impact of Scenic Environments on Health,” Nature, Scientific Reports 5 (Nov. 2015).
  35. Seresinhe, quoted in Sarah Knapton, “Beautiful Urban Architecture Boosts Health as Much as Green Spaces,” Daily Telegraph, Dec. 28, 2015.
  36. Seresinhe, Preis, and Moat, “Quantifying the Impact of Scenic Environments.”
  37. Boys Smith, Heart in the Right Street, p. 97.
  38. See ibid. for a wider summary of the links between built form and well-being.
  39. Nicholas Boys Smith, A Direct Planning Revolution for London? (London: Create Streets, 2016), pp. 7–10.
  40. Packington Estate planning brief, Appendix 4, Jan. 12, 2005. The most popular spontaneous feedback to the survey was a request to prevent any building higher than four stories.
  41. Cited in Graham Stewart, Robin Hood Gardens: The Search for a Sense of Place (London: Wild Search, 2012), p. 16.
  42. A council house is a home at a submarket rent owned by the local public authority. Jean Bartlett, cited in Jon Kelley, “Estate of the 70s Divided by Its Future,” BBC News, July 12, 2007.
  43. Flora Neville, “Is It Right to Regenerate Down?”, May 2, 2015. In our experience, the design and type of development can and often does play a key role in winning support for estate generation. See also David Halpern and John Reid, “Effect of Unexpected Demolition Announcement on Health of Residents,” British Medical Journal 304 (May 9, 1992): 1229–30.
  44. From a private conversation.
  45. Boys Smith et al., Mount Pleasant Circus and Fleet Valley Gardens (London: Legatum Institute, 2014), p. 30.
  46. Create Streets, Little Oval.
  47. Survey carried out for Kingston Residents Alliance by Create Streets.
  48. Create Streets, Friends of Wimbledon Town Centre Survey.
  49. Boys Smith, A Direct Planning Revolution for London?
  50. David Halpern, Mental Health and the Built Environment: More than Bricks and Mortar? (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 161–62.
  51. Christian Jarrett, “An Interview with David Halpern,” The Psychologist 24, no. 6 (June 2011): 432–34.
  52. It was reassuring, however, to see the Aug. 2015 launch of the RIBA Journal McEwan Award to fete projects with “a clear social benefit, right across society”; this is a step in the right direction.
  53. Stephen Platt, William Fawcett, and Robin de Carteret, Housing Futures: Informed Public Opinion (York, England: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2004), p. 40.
  54. See Graham Brown and Robert Gifford, “Architects Predict Lay Evaluations of Large Contemporary Buildings: Whose Conceptual Properties?” Journal of Environmental Psychology 21, no. 1 (Mar. 2009): 93–99; Jane Darke, “Architects and User Requirements in Public-Sector Housing,” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 11, no. 4 (Dec. 1984): 389–433.
  55. Ours is not the only research with this finding: for one study and to see a summary of others, see Brown and Gifford, “Architects Predict.”
  56. Private information. A member of Create Streets was at the meeting, which was for a public-sector client.
  57. In fact, there is evidence of planning rules in the then–English capital (Winchester) back to the ninth century.
  58. There are surprisingly few international comparisons of planning systems. One is Peter Newman and Andy Thornley, Urban Planning in Europe (London: Routledge, 1996). Create Streets has published essays on the French planning system and has a fuller analysis of planning in France in a forthcoming publication.
  59. Though they may not agree with every word in this essay, a range of groups from different perspectives, including the housing charity Shelter, a growing number of YIMBY—Yes in My Back Yard—groups, the community organizers, Citizens UK, Civic Voice, the National Trust, and the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, are all trying to improve the way that communities influence what is built or to make the case for more popular building forms.
  60. One way to ensure that what residents really want is embedded in designs and not just what developers and designers would like them to want is by using a “charrette” or “enquiry by design process.” In a charrette, various stakeholders work together as part of one team. Planners, architects, owners, neighbors, amenity societies, and other “stakeholders” work on a valid but acceptable master plan together, over a series of days, with lots of pencils and sheets of paper. Charrettes have been described as making “community planning a combination of a town meeting and a barn raising.”
  61. Matthew Carmona et al., Design Coding Practice: An Evaluation (London: Department for Communities and Local Government, 2006), p. 14.
  62. Department for Communities and Local Government, “Fixing Our Broken Housing Market,” Feb. 7, 2017.
  63. A good presentation is on the Form-Based Codes Institute website,
  64. Rick Bernhardt, planning director, Nashville, quoted in Form-Based Codes Institute, Introducing Form-Based Codes, p. 43.
  65. Comments at the National Housing Federation, London Development Conference, Dec. 2, 2014.