Beyond Conservation

Photo by Tom Parsons

Photo by Tom Parsons

In a climate emergency, should planners focus more on Futures – ‘renewal’ and ‘regeneration’ – than on Histories – ‘conservation’ and ‘heritage’?

Conserving Biodiversity

I recently circulated a ‘Conservation Criteria’ questionnaire to our local community, setting out six options and asking residents to rank them in order of importance. Of course, it was a tiny preliminary survey, but this was the result:

  • A (most important): Conserving Biodiversity
  • B (second choice): Conserving HeritageC. (third choice): Conserving Community
  • D (fourth choice): Conserving Local Health/Safety/Wellbeing
  • E (fifth choice): Conserving Energy / Carbon
  • F (least important): Conserving Land Use

I was delighted that my neighbours put ‘Biodiversity’ first, but a bit surprised to see ‘Heritage’ running a close second. Perhaps this is a peculiarly British thing. Two World Wars have created a nostalgia for damaged buildings and our population has been forced to endure a succession of class-war TV soap operas that unfailingly fetishise the grandeur of stately homes.

Conserving Heritage

William Morris (1834-1896) was a designer and political activist who pioneered the British notion of ‘conservation’ in the 19th century. As founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877) we might see him as a ‘conservative’. However, his broad concerns encompassed environmental, practical and egalitarian principles. Indeed, his values and objectives are more pragmatic and long-sighted than today’s UK planning policy. Victorian builders had a bad habit of plundering historic buildings to build new ones, and Morris knew that dereliction will increase the ultimate cost of renovation. His socialism was moderate, but he valued the social diversity and fairness that pertains in human-scale living communities.

It is a pity that we still allow the short-term logic of accountancy to eclipse the role of the imagination in the way we build shelters and care for one another.

If, for every ten new houses built, one gets thrown in a skip this will have obvious financial implications for everybody.

Conserving Community

When my partner and I first moved to London we were very lucky to find a terraced house we could afford. It was in terrible shape and similar to millions of other worker houses produced in the housing booms of the 1850s and 1870s. Low-paid labourers needed cheap housing, so many builders cut corners and skimped on materials. Actually, despite its faults we love our house. Eventually, we saved enough money to dismantle our leaky roof and replace it with a complete top floor studio. This was a win-win on several fronts. Without taking money from the council’s building budget we would increase local housing capacity. The new building regulations would also force us to conserve more energy that otherwise escapes through our rickety roof. In the existing V-shaped ‘butterfly’ roof, rainwater runs directly above the upstairs bedrooms, along the middle of the house. Notably, this feature is hidden behind a street-facing parapet. Our planning application was rejected. As we live in what the British call a ‘conservation area’, I appealed to the Chief Planning Officer, asking him what the Council were aiming to conserve. I never received an answer. Instead, our hearing at the Town Hall was mysteriously cancelled and the rejection overturned.

amadeusz misiak

Conserving Values

I am still puzzled. What is ‘conservation’, and what do we need to ‘conserve’ in a world of homelessness and climate change?

Ultimately, planning decisions should reflect values, rather than single factors. In a sense, we might describe them as ‘aesthetic’ as long as we understand this a much broader than just the visual character or style of things.

Often, aesthetics is seen in narrow terms as a subjective matter of personal taste. Actually, it is much more than this. It reconciles all human senses, including every value, feature and quality of the perceptible world. At a social, political and moral level it also, therefore, embraces the habits, beliefs and ideologies of a given society. Unlike factual truths, aesthetics cannot be reduced to single criteria or choices. As Immanuel Kant pointed out, aesthetics is intrinsically connected to ethics.

Conserving Lives

When you first encounter a new flavour or taste you may not like it. After a while you get used to it and it becomes ‘normal’. If it does you no harm, you will find it aesthetically pleasing. In 2017, a fire in a London tower block killed 72 residents and injuring 70 out of a living community of 293. It turned out that the Grenfell Tower fire was predicted, precedented and the largely a consequence of design management. Sticking industrially-produced exterior cladding onto residential buildings is a cheap alternative to locally crafted-construction.

The efforts to unpack the vast complexities of what went wrong are ongoing, but what is already clear is that the disaster was a team effort, from top to bottom.

Arguably, the short-term logic of accountancy obliterated any chance for the collective imagination to create synergies for all. The terrible aftermath of this event made us re-consider the (aesthetic) balance between profit-driven materials and methods, their exterior appearance and the level of safety they will afford. Addressing the shortcomings of the UK’s cladding disaster is likely to cost at least £15 billion – considerably more, presumably, than what was saved in the first place.

dagny reese

Beyond Conservation

It is important to hold onto the complexities and paradoxes of real systems. Unfortunately, as the UK planning system regulates only a few aspects of the built environment, individual developers are sometimes permitted to design in a way that maximises profits at the expense of the community. This is not so easy in Germany, where they have conservation statutes (called ‘Milieuschutz’) that enables planners to conserve both the aesthetic ‘character’ and the social conditions that help communities to thrive. In practical terms, this might protect long-term residents from being overshadowed by high rise buildings, or priced out of the area through gentrification. It would be good to improve urban planning everywhere, perhaps by thinking beyond the conservationist mindset and designing for a process of ‘renewal’, or ‘regeneration’. Here, there is room for optimism. Indeed, there is no technological, or practical reason why we cannot envisage self-renewing cities that could exist in a minimum timescale based on the half-life of the Sun (i.e. more than 2 billion years).

Read more of John Wood’s articles in Sublime

Photos by Tom Parsons, Amadeusz Misiak & Dagny Reese

Further Reading

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, (2021), ‘The Economics of Biodiversity’ (UK Government Report, 2nd February, 2021).
Gollier, C. (2004). The Economics of Risk and Time. MIT press.
Hutton, W., (1996), “The State We’re In”, Vintage Books, 1996
Oliver Wainright, (2021), ‘Penthouses and Poor Doors: How Europe’s biggest regeneration project fell flat’ Guardian newspaper, 2nd January, 2021