Kinetic Boundaries : Expanding physical and professional field conditions / by Ian Bailey

Stan Allen presents the transition of architecture from object to field as a means of approaching heterogenous space in architecture and urban design. The field is not just “another design trope, in that the field significantly alters the modernist relationship between form, programme and space, as well as blurring the normative boundary between discrete architectural building and larger urban forces and conditions.”(1) This implies that there is a clear shift from architecture as the means of producing buildings to that of organising manifold relationships within an environmental context. Sanford Kwinter describes the field as “a space of propagation, of effects. It contains not matter, rather vectors and speeds, local relations of difference.”

Field conditions are bottom up phenomena that rely upon intricate local connections. A while ago I undertook a project in Bognor Regis to consider the spatial and productive conditions that might form a new masterplan approach to the faded seaside town. It was observed that those connections are critical over many levels of the urban conditions that operate across the town. These connections are critical in ensuring that any intervention (be it physical, developmental, economic, social or political) be successful and integrated into the existing context. Stan Allen states that “Form matters, but not so much the forms of things as the forms between things.”(2) Often theory operates within a vacuum of academia, however it is important that it is applied in real world conditions to test it and develop it further. Here lies the dichotomy of testing ‘bottom up’ theory - it’s arisen out of ongoing practice, fleshed out in academic isolation and re-applied like a laboratory rat, observed and experimented upon rather than growing organically out of an existing condition within it’s context.

Interdependent field conditions as considered in Bognor Regis (S7S 2014)

Interdependent field conditions as considered in Bognor Regis (S7S 2014)

Because Bognor Regis has an existing context of fishing and working into the sea it is conceivable that a development such as that which I am proposing be considered an evolution. The fishermen have always relied upon the tide being in to launch their boats, dependent upon the tidal (field) conditions to enable their interaction with the sea. To expand this field condition it makes sense to facilitate a means that would enable the fishermen to launch their boats at any point during the day (or night). Proposing a breakwater with jetties on the inside offers this to the fishermen as well as giving some safety to the boats and releasing the shoreline from their presence. Facilitating the fishermen to fish at different times of the day enables their field to grow and in turn the connections it has to grow.

Field conditions are expandable, they can be replicated, manipulated and developed. Evolving the existing conditions into an expanded field sometimes means taking the strategy for one program and applying it to another. For instance; the beach along the South Coast often hosts beach plants, many of which are either edible or productive in some way. Because Bognor Regis’ beach was quarried extensively during the 19th century the plant stock there was devastated. Re-introducing Sea Kale, Horned Poppies, grasses and other plants and shrubs will provide a more stable beach condition whilst offering productive space to the benefit of the local community whilst also expanding the ecosystem further.

Expanding the productive field in Bognor Regis (S7S 2014)

Expanding the productive field in Bognor Regis (S7S 2014)

The way that this re-introduction takes effect can be predicted but should not be controlled. Allen refers to artists who work with materials that cannot be controlled, they’re rather directed and the naturally occurring results become the outcome. Similarly with the expanding field conditions there will be a naturally evolving outcome that becomes the overall condition. The sense is that the “matter itself shape and calculate possible configurations, only loosely directed”(3) by the architect or designer. When considered in the context of community this becomes even more important to keep in mind, architects and planning professionals accustomed to considering conditions, analysing potential and proposing opportunities frequently miss out on the opportunity to enable local conditions to define themselves, instead favouring the design approach. This goes against many years of training, turning the top-down approach upside down and starting from the perspective of people, rather than quantifiable outcomes.

Considering the field as a material condition rather than a metaphor enables one to think more about the connections between organisation, matter and making. Often there is conflict between these conditions but considering them as a series of events or activities rather than objects enables them to become part of a fluid and sensitive response to the local differences. For architecture this is a particularly interesting possibility where traditionally it acts as the incoming juggernaut of change rather than the connection between existing systems. These connections often thrive at a local level where ownership can be held and becomes a tangible marker of change in the field.

Generating an architectural field where built forms operate as part of a sequence of events, they’re part of a local process and invested within a particular context is vitally important for Bognor Regis’ growth and development. The sea is Bognor Regis’ kinetic threshold and offers the expansion of it’s field where new spaces and experiences can be formulated as part of a local strategy for productivity. Brighton and Hove has clear geographical thresholds in the form of the South Downs National Park to the north and the sea to the South. With sub-urban sprawl impossible strategyic consideration needs to be given to where the spatial kineticism for the city can be considered, addressed and appropriated to serve the needs of the city, both in a productive and architectural manner.

Brighton & Hove Land strategy considerations

Land is of short supply in Brighton and Hove. As already noted the city is sandwiched between the sea and the South Downs National Park, both of which act as barriers to conventional housing development when homes are developed in traditional low rise or high rise formats with gardens and green spaces as appropriate for the assumed demographics of end users. This context is not unique to Brighton & Hove however given the proximity and ease of connection with London, Brighton & Hove has seen it’s housing market, and housing stock expansion placed under additional open market stress which has seen land prices reach a premium reducing the viability of affordable housing provision. Coupled with the increasing numbers of students wishing to study at the two universities within the city and the lack of campus based housing means that there is additional need placed on the housing supply.

BHCC Urban Fringe Assessment 2014

BHCC Urban Fringe Assessment 2014

With the Urban Fringe Land Assessment carried out by Brighton & Hove City Council in 2014 it was noted that there was insufficient land for the required 5 year supply of new housing stock. This has meant that the city council has had to consider how to increase density within existing areas of housing in the city, replace or convert commercial and office property with housing, and consider how to increase the size of the Marina to provide for additional housing units to be built. These strategies are limited in their capacity, the balance of housing supply with commercial and office space in the city are inextricably linked as the need for employment space has to be considered alongside the increase in population.

As such it is important to consider what other strategies might be viable to increase the provision of land that is viable for housing. These strategies will need to consider a degree of supply duration, but equally the impact on infrastructure, local community resources, green spaces, access to the national park, connection to services etc. With this in mind some options that might be considered with these things in mind are listed below for initial consideration.

1 - Allotments

 At present allotments sites are located across the city, predominantly in the East and the West which forces a large proportion of people to travel via car to their allotment causing parking issues, increases pollution and decreases the frequency of use. The location of the allotments away from people’s homes also means that they have to leave equipment on their site, often having to utilise a shed which is a target for thieves and vandals. This diminishes the productivity and viability of the allotment ideals.

If allotments could be located closer to people’s homes then it would reduce the travel requirements, increase usage and decrease pollution. To do this would require the identification of potential growing spaces scattered across the city. Currently there are a significant number of under-used green spaces which have to be maintained by the Local Authority which could serve as community gardens or public allotment host spaces. Additional some space within larger public parks could be identified and handed over to allotmenteers or community growing groups as has been successfully carried out a Preston Park in Brighton, but is a prevalent system in cities across Europe.

Brighton and Hove allotment distribution map (S7S 2017)

Brighton and Hove allotment distribution map (S7S 2017)

If spaces such as these could be appropriated for growing, it would have a manifold impact; Firstly it would see under-used spaces in the city obtain a level of public ownership, this in turn could eliminate the Local Authority maintenance requirements thereby reducing workload and budget. Secondly in allocating existing allotmenteers to these spaces would free up spaces on the existing sites. If carried out on a like for like basis this could enable a complete re-think of how allotments are provided across the city. Thirdly, by using public spaces for growing food it raises the profile of more sustainable methods of food production within the city, reduces food miles, reduces use of pesticides and GM crops, increases bio-diversity within the urban centre, enhances opportunities for demographic and ethnic mixing and cohesion and potentially has the capacity to increase CO2 absorption and carbon capture too.

The notion of re-considering the location of allotments within the city will have significant implications for those people who have held sites for many years and consider it to be part of their life and connection to the city. Uprooting some of these allotmenteers would have to be carefully considered, timetabled and managed to prevent any sense that people are being disenfranchised in any way. Case study cities & towns such a Berlin, Havanna, Chicago, Bankok, Todmorden, Rosario (Argentina) & Harare can provide exemplars of how such systems have been strategically implemented and managed to maximise benefits to the public and the municipality.

2 - Car parking

Across the city of Brighton & Hove there are a number of significant car parks which take up large land footprints and serve to encourage the use of Petrol & Diesel engined vehicles through their minimal offer of electric charging points or alternative fuel supplies etc. Car parking in the city is frequently cited as being one of the most contentious elements of public engagement for any local authority, both in terms of street based permit parking for residents, but equally with regard to the ever increasing cost of leaving a vehicle in the city for any duration of time.   

Such considerations relating to the cost of parking cannot be separated from the increasing cost and viability of alternative and more sustainable transport systems such as buses, trains, cycling and walking. The implementation of sustainable transport routes for bicycles and buses in the city coupled with the reduced speed limits across the city have been met with high levels of anger with the principle complaint regarding the increased time it takes to drive a private car in and out of the city centre. It should be noted that there is no incentive for people to utilise public transport when it costs more than parking a car. Equally dis-incentivising is the limited provision of safe cycle routes covering the whole city. To properly encourage an increase in zero carbon transport such as cycling it is imperative to make it viable for all age groups, at present it is impossible to safely cycle across the city with young children and as such cycling cannot being fostered as a principle form of urban transport as has happened across cities in the Netherlands for instance.

Increasing opportunities for sustainable transport and in fact doing more to encourage it ultimately results in a reduced need for public car parking in the city. It will not be viable, or even preferable to eliminate it altogether, however it is possible to consider how it might better be integrated into new development across the city to free up the current parking sites for alternative uses such as housing. Many other cities across Europe utilise local planning policies to provide vehicle parking underground, below both existing and new developments. As a result streets are generally less occupied with vehicles, and there are less significantly sized parking developments taking up urban space. In Japan and other far Eastern countries where urban densities are extreme in contrast to here in the UK, below ground car parking is the norm and can be incredible in its ingenuity and scope.

If Brighton & Hove were to implement a local planning guidance which stipulated that all new commercial and residential development had to provide car parking below it’s street level, and of significantly higher numbers of spaces that the bare minimum then it would be possible to redevelop the existing multi-storey and open plan car parks across the city to provide the additional housing which is so needed.

3 - High rise development

Proponents of social housing will expertly argue that the issue of housing density, and in particular the elevation of housing density is inextricably linked to increased levels of social deprivation and decreased quality of life and opportunity for residents. It is also frequently argued that high rise developments offer far less safety for residents in the event of a fire as so recently and tragically exemplified at Grenfell Tower. It has also been successfully argued many times that high density housing is not only possible through high-rise, but it is equally viable through low rise, traditional terraced housing provision.(4)

The proposed high rise development at Preston Barracks by the University of Brighton

The proposed high rise development at Preston Barracks by the University of Brighton

It is therefore not necessarily the best course of action to pursue high density, high rise options when considering the maximisation of residential units on any particular site, or within a particular area of a city. However, the same cannot be said for utilising high-rise as a method of increasing other forms of accommodation such as commercial/office space. Where offices are only occupied for half of any given day they do not suffer the same social issues such as loitering and anti-social behaviour, increased risk of fire through overnight occupation, diversification of ownership through freehold and leasehold conditions resulting in reduced maintenance programmes etc, they also do not have the same requirement for outside space which goes with the provision of decent homes for people.

It must be viable to look at how the provision of commercial/office space in the city could be combined. For instance, rather than allow two 5 storey office blocks to be constructed within a certain radius of each other, a single 10 storey office block could be built thereby enabling the second site to be developed to provide homes. This of course has significant implications for a multitude of considerations; project development finances, ownership/partnerships for developers and firms, overshadowing within the city and rights of light, shared responsibilities for maintenance between firms etc. However, as with all such strategic approaches there are also benefits to be considered; financial risk spread between development partners, reduction in number of building sites has positive impact on the city, increased height of building also increases the opportunities for developing more sustainable buildings with reduced energy needs & enhanced energy production opportunities through Photo-voltaics etc.

This approach would require firms to work together, this perhaps therefore requires a more substantial mind-shift for prospective developers as well as owner-builders which steps away from the currently preferred approach of building/ownership for self alone. This is a mind-set which is not only seen in the commercial sector but equally (perhaps even more) within the housing sector. It requires building development to be considered as a more integral element to the built environment and city community as a whole rather than being a stand alone element. Encouraging the sharing of buildings has to be based on a recognition of the need of the city as a whole, enabling and ensuring that commercial development plays it’s part in the provision of housing supply.

4 - Roof spaces

 We can consider roof spaces as out of reach, as un-available, as non-viable. In the UK and certainly a majority of the developed world utilising roof spaces for residential development is not acceptable. It is perfectly normal to assume that it is open for business however, whether this is advertising, telecommunications, energy generation, plant location, aerial transport hubs etc. In the developing world it is frequently considered normal for roof spaces to become occupied by shacks, to have shanty dwellings layering on top of each other creating a geological vernacular. Even in cities within the USA roof spaces are utilised by those who keep pigeons, this who want to grow food, those who want to socialise. Frequently this access is only available to those who occupy the buildings however as homelessness increases within the developed world these spaces have the potential to become safer spaces for rough sleeping than the streets.

Black House by Simon Condor Architects is built atop a C.19th Warehouse

All of this concept relates to issues of ownership, both of the building itself but equally relating to the air-rights above it. As such legislation within the UK prevents access to the space above a building by anyone other than the owner of the building. It’s unclear as to how these factors are considered in the rest of the world. There have been examples of rooftop development within the UK in recent years, frequently small pavilions for small scale and short term occupation, but also some full residential development. 

Pragmatically the structure of the building might not allow for development, however given our historic building methodologies, particularly our affiliation and affection for substantial masonry buildings there is often more strength in the structure than might be immediately apparent. Opportunities for increasing occupation upon and within a building offer a method for increasing density in all areas of the city. The additional issues revolving around rights to light and wind loadings will undoubtedly affect the viability of rooftop developments both within the city and on it’s fringes however this and other issues should not be seen as a blanket reason not to investigate opportunities to develop above existing structures.

Rather than simply considering land opportunities on the terra firms we need to consider what opportunities there might be above (and below) the general plane of existence that is Ground level. Utilising the roofscape as a new territory within the city diversifies the opportunities available for housing supply within the city, perhaps best suited to small scale intervention to support those suffering disadvantage resulting in homelessness. Elevating the needs of the poor demonstrates that all people deserve housing, not just those who can afford it.

5 - Community Air Trust

So whilst Community Land Trusts are a well established and increasingly popular approach to enabling communities gain long term secure access to housing and other assets no-one to date has explored the idea of enabling community access to the air space above the city or built environment. This might sound utterly ludicrous; surely there could be no genuine or provably beneficial use for the air space above a neighbourhood other than in the provision of the correct gases to keep people breathing and plants growing? However, without exploration how would we ever figure out whether this is possible, viable and/or suitable? It sounds like something from Science Fiction to consider accessible spaces floating in the sky, however history has shown us that sometime it is precisely the inconceivable approach of sci-fi that leads people to develop technologies and approaches that revolutionise how we live.(5)

I would not intend to even begin to explore the potential difficulties or opportunities that such an idea could present, that should be reserved for a more specific study, however the notion that communities could be elevated above the ground should not be thrown away too lightly. To return to the introduction of this paper, considering spatial boundaries, kinetic thresholds and the ‘normative boundaries’ as Stan Allen describes them, is essential to the development and growth of our communities, neighbourhoods, towns and cities as we seek to consider the changing environmental factors that we have inflicted upon ourselves.

6 - Densification

 Many parts of the city are chronically under developed, that is the density of development is exceptionally low. Buildings are spaced out in a manner which prevents pragmatic and efficient use of the surrounding land, diminishing the opportunities to infill between buildings and expand existing buildings. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently referred to the UK as an intensely crowded island, however, only 5.9% of the UK is actually built on. Here in Brighton and Hove that figure is considerably higher as we are a city and therefore it would be expected.

Brighton stats.jpg

 As can be seen in the statistics above Brighton and Hove as an urban centre has higher percentages of buildings and (perhaps surprisingly) urban green spaces whilst having a lower percentage of farmland and what might be considered natural designation. When compared with another city, such as Portsmouth, just along the coast which is coastal locked in three directions Brighton and Hove is still not particularly densely developed. Portsmouth is ~40.25km2 in size with a population of 205,400, whilst Brighton & Hove is ~87.5 km2 with a population of 278,000 people. This gives Portsmouth an average density of 5,103 people per sq/km, whilst Brighton & Hove has a much lower average density of 3,177 people per sq/km. As a city we do not utilise and maximise the space available for development, in the case of housing supply this means that we have the opportunity to consider how to infill, expand and densify our city.

Portsmouth stats.jpg

7 - Land reclamation

 As a city we are locked between the South Downs National Park and the Sea, with townships to the East and the West there is nowhere new to extend the city boundary within the conventional methodologies. Elsewhere in the world land reclamation is a common approach to increasing housing and commercial development. Cities such as Boston in the USA, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Kobe in Japan, Hong Kong and Macau in China along with large parts of Bangladesh, Bahrain and Singapore have all reclaimed significant amounts of land from the sea for building on. China has reclaimed 4,600 square miles of land, proportionally to the size of the country this is minor, however the Netherlands has reclaimed 2,700 square miles of land which for such a small and densely populated country is enormous, it equates to 17% of it’s land mass. Couple that with the Netherlands becoming one of the (if not the) most productive farming countries within the European Economic Area and there is no dispute over how valuable land reclamation can be for a nation.

Netherlands Land Reclamation map

Netherlands Land Reclamation map

Brighton Marina represents the only place where in Brighton we have dared to reach out into the seascape. Given the exposure that the Brighton & Hove coastline has towards the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean any development has the potential to be seen as in the direct firing line of the prevailing winds and storms. Depending on how any development were conceived it is entirely possible that developing out at sea could generate an enhanced resort location along the Brighton seafront by breaking the influx of heavy swells further out to sea thereby calming the waters closer to the historic coastline.

Development along the seafront would require consent and buy in from the Crown Estate who own approximately half of the UK’s foreshore and tidal riverbeds along with almost the entirety of the seabed out to a distance of 12 nautical miles from the foreshore. This presents a significant planning hurdle which would have to  be presented and formulated in conjunction with the Local Authority and National Government as it would form a precedent for development elsewhere in the country as well.

Development out at sea has implications for energy production as well. The Rampion wind farm off the coast is a massive feat of engineering but is limited to just that. It’s provision of significant electricity for the nation should not be diminished but the opportunity to develop at sea needs to be considered for whatever manifold opportunities might be possible.

Conclusions

Developing a housing strategy for Brighton & Hove cannot be solely confined to the conventional approaches, as a city we face extreme needs within a social context of change and an environment of increasing threat from climate change. Whilst it would be unreasonable to assume in any setting that such diverse options as set out above could be delivered purely by a community led approach, incorporating thinking such as this into an overall strategy for housing supply would enable the Community Led sector to approach the challenges with wider eyes than conventional developers could ever conceive of. As a city we need to be prepared to push the boat out and take some risks for the benefit of our communities, families and the next generation of residents.

For professionals this means stepping out of the comfort of our normal operating conditions, rethinking why we do what we do even. The challenge this presents to the profession is as significant as that for the built environment; if we remain within the current legislative and professional conditions which are well established (but regularly attacked) then we simply entrench ourselves. Architects, designers and creatives are naturally inclined and professionally trained to think around situations in a different way, to approach the field without fear of how the boundaries might be re-adjusted, blurred or manipulated to create the kind of society and conditions which we need for the future.

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Footnotes

 1 - Allen, Stan. Practice, Architecture, Technique and Representation. Routledge, 2009

2,3 - ibid

4 - https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/davehillblog/2015/feb/18/should-london-embrace-the-vision-of-create-streets

5 - Technology - https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ten-inventions-inspired-by-science-fiction-128080674/ Society - http://www.thestargarden.co.uk/Why-society-needs-science-fiction.html

6- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41901294

7 - http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-most-reclaimed-land.html