Diolch am y gwahoddiad a'r croeso cynnes.
I am delighted to be able to speak to you today at this conference organised by the Welsh Development Agency and my Foundation for the Built Environment.
Since 1975 the W.D.A. has worked with local authorities and the Welsh Assembly Government to address the huge problems left by the decline of heavy industry and pressures on our urban and rural areas which have suffered from a broad range of social, economic and environmental problems. A critical issue, as this Government has acknowledged, is how to tackle social disadvantage radically, by creating stronger, safer, truly sustainable communities.
A Welshman who was of course the father of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan, once said, ‘We should try to introduce into our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the labourer all lived in the same street. I believe it is essential for the life of a citizen ….. to see the living tapestry of a mixed community.'
Perhaps, on this occasion, I can also quote the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, who has stated clearly, ‘sustainable development is not an option that will go away – it is the only way forward.'
I am particularly interested in the way these two statements are separated by generations and yet clearly sound the same note of concern for the future of our urban places. I have long believed that we have neglected the model of mixed-use, recognisable community evoked so wonderfully by Aneurin Bevan with disastrous consequences. Above all, we have succeeded in “zoning” not only our built environment, but also our own humanity – as well as Nature Herself. (I remember with Poundbury I had housebuilders to dinner 15 years ago.
They said that in the real world we would not be able to sell if people on low incomes were living there.) Hopefully, now, the tide seems to be turning again with the recognition of the social and economic value of building places, not housing estates, that incorporate the basic principles of town-making. These are, after all, the principles that ensure prosperity and longevity for settlements at whatever scale. In an age when so much emphasis is placed on value, is it not our imperative to embed social capital in communities – capital that comes through the provision of local schools, local health facilities, small and convenient shops, adequate public transport – all within walking distance for the majority of the inhabitants?
In establishing my Foundation for the Built Environment, I have tried to create a forum to bring together many of the most committed advocates and forceful arguments for traditional town-making; for the re-discovery of those timeless, tried and tested values which reflect our intuitive humanity and not just the soulless imperatives of the mechanistic approach. The expertize they command covers many different disciplines – not only planners and architects but scientists, mathematicians, craftspeople and government advisors.
This mix echoes my belief in an holistic approach to the building of a community, just as I believe in the essential unity of mind, body and spirit when it comes to treating human health. An interesting example of this is being promoted by my Foundation at the Coed Darcy Project at Llandarcy. The proposed Urban Village aims to transform B.P.'s former refinery - a thousand acre brownfield site - into an integrated, sustainable mixed-use community that is properly connected to existing surrounding settlements, respects the unique landscape and relates well to local vernacular architecture through the creation of a local identity.
We talk about localizing and local sourcing, we are now rediscovering and reconnecting with local values. All these things are coming back and how to create a local identity in an interconnecting world. It also seeks to harmonize with nature, for example, the swallows and swifts. What buildings have them and where will they cling on to? The traditional approach to urbanism also encourages an emphasis on placing the pedestrian at the centre of the design process, and not the car.
The diverse experience of people who have contributed to education and projects programmes at my Foundation suggests that this can only be achieved by challenging – even overturning - conventional standards in highways engineering and in planning, in favour of more appropriate, locally-responsive design solutions that are demonstrably safe, practical, but do not alienate individuals in divisive, segregated zones served by the dual-carriageways of conventional regeneration approaches. (The truth is that the existing conventional rules in highways engineering can only automatically lead to the creation of housing estates. I have talked to many housebuilders in recent years and they frequently tell me that this is one of the most rigid barriers to building genuinely sustainable communities.) This is only one aspect of the “humanization” of Coed Darcy which will also be built in an architecture that responds to local vernacular and employs, where possible, local materials.
Coed Darcy will be an exemplar of reclamation and intelligent re-use of land in South Wales, and tribute must be paid to the drive and enthusiasm of those who have worked on the project: the W.D.A., Neath Port Talbot Council (who have adopted a hugely enlightened approach), the landowner B.P., the master-planning team led by Alan Baxter and Associates, and the recently appointed developer of area one - Edward Ware Homes Ltd - with their architect Robert Adam, not to speak of my Foundation's manager in Wales, John Cottrell. I need hardly say that after overcoming so many hurdles, challenges, setbacks and frustrations, I look forward with eager anticipation to the arrival of the first homes on this important site and its subsequent development under the stewardship of my Foundation!
Many of the people-oriented principles that Coed Darcy embodies of course carry great implications for public health. I have spoken on many occasions about the impact of the built environment on health and psychological wellbeing and maintain that this relationship cannot be understated. With the retreat of heavy industry around the country we have been given the best – perhaps the only – opportunity to create pollution-free neighbourhoods that foster good health in our post-industrial age. The current alarming trends in allergies and obesity should perhaps remind us of the need to pay a bit more attention to the quality of our environment. If a neighbourhood is more attractive and sympathetically designed, for instance, it might conceivably make walking a more enjoyable experience…
After all, where do you like living yourselves? And where do you go for your holidays – France perhaps to take advantage of the so-called peasant farming, ambience and villages? Why do we do this?
Surely the links between body, mind and spirit, which are once again being increasingly recognized, have their equivalents in the built environment? The speakers today have shown how healthy growth builds up from the neighbourhood unit to sound urban structure and regional harmony – surely a form of “organic” growth that mirrors natural systems, rather than a “genetically modified” approach which seeks to impose an alien, laboratory-designed structure?
There are a plethora of studies demonstrating how even the minutiae of the visible daily scene – from trees in the street to building decoration, can evoke positive physiological responses in the pedestrian. When we speak of sustainability, we must acknowledge the immense power of those natural systems of which we are a part. This is the Smart Growth to which today's agenda is dedicated and which in successful practice may yet save our planet from environmental catastrophe. I hope that through the new initiatives in the country Wales can demonstrate practical responses to climate change that will serve as world exemplars. After all, Wales has already led from the front over G.M.O.'s – so there's a very good precedent to go by when it comes to joined-up thinking!
Whilst the Coed Darcy project and many of the others we have talked about today, are large scale and often in urban areas, it is important not to overlook our rural communities where many of the lessons of traditional design and local distinctiveness can also be applied, and where issues of access, social exclusion and affordability are no less acute. It is therefore significant, I think, that the Countryside Council for Wales has partly sponsored this event.
So, ladies and gentlemen, in rural, valley and urban areas across Wales we should be developing the mechanisms for placing well-tried, timeless and traditional approaches to urban design at the heart of the strategy to protect and develop our communities. Traditional rural economic activity must also be supported, including the environmentally-responsible farming of land. A strong and valued built legacy will be the natural outcome of this approach – and the social and environmental value to be obtained is immense….
If we are to succeed in accommodating growth and in promoting social prosperity, I would urge all of you to make the connection between the art of building and the making of community.
Diolch am y gwahoddiad i siarad a phob hwyl prynhawn yma.