In my recent post about a 1960s book on urban design, I concluded that I was "more than happy to live in a slightly chaotic hotch-potch of medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian buildings, rather than some drab, functionalist vision of efficient living."
But what exactly did this mean? What was it about Lewes that I felt made it successful as an urban environment?
Yesterday afternoon, I decided to go looking for evidence. Rather than deliberately seeking out the most attractive parts of the town, I set myself the task of seeing what I could find within a 10-minute walk from my front door, taking photos of anything that caught my eye.
Later, looking at the pictures I'd taken, I started thinking about the common themes that had emerged during my walk and ended up with a list of seven. That number rang a bell. Then I remembered that John Ruskin had written his 'Seven Lamps of Architecture' in the 1840s.
My list is probably more of a 'Seven Low Energy Light Bulbs of Architecture', but these are the factors that I think are crucial to successful urban living:
1. The Relationship with Nature:
There are very few places in Lewes where you can't see the Downs. They place a natural limit to the town's growth and are a constant reminder of the natural landscape that exists beyond the urban one:
Also, within the town itself, there are plenty of trees and green spaces open to the public and nobody is more than five minutes' walk away from a park or playing field. This is absolutely crucial to a successful urban environent.
Obviously this relationship with nature has to be negotiated in many different ways, depending on the local area. But anywhere can be turned green. Look at the popularity of a recent project in New York, where a disused elevated railway line has been tuned into a 2km-long park.
In some urban settings, it looks as if the area has been sprayed with Agent Orange. In Lewes, the natural and artificial seem to have reached a truce:
Whilst all towns have to evolve over time to meet the needs of their inhabitants, it is vital to have some buildings that evoke a sense of permanence, existing beyond the reach of corporate greed or bureaucratic short-sightedness.
In Lewes, the most obvious landmark is the 12th century Norman castle, which towers above the town:
The castle almost sits in judgement upon the town, reminding us of our relationship with past and future generations.
But not everywhere has the luxury of an inherited landmark, so in a newer town, it is vital that there are a few publically-owned prestige buildings.
In Crawley, a new town in Sussex, almost the entire centre is given over to retail property. The only prominent public building, the library, is on the fringes of the town centre, on the wrong side of a busy road. The result is a soulless, depressing environment.
3. A Mixture of Styles:
Walk through the medieval archway of Lewes Castle and you will pass a succession of buildings from different periods, from the Georgian house above to these 21st-century homes:
Uniformity can be a good thing - few would complain about Baron Haussmann's Paris - but the ecclectic mixture of buildings from different periods works particularly well in Lewes. This is a community that has evolved over time, in response to the needs of its inhabitants. I like the individuality and eccentricity of the local houses:
4. Pedestrian Access:
Lewes has a number of hidden alleyways known as 'twittens' (derived from betwixt and between), which cut across the town, making it easy for people to reach places on foot without having to cross a succession of busy roads:
A network of footpaths, away from the main roads, is vital to the success of any urban landscape (I'm obviously assuming an absence of excrement, graffiti and muggers).
5. Use of Local Materials:
Everywhere you look in Lewes, you'll see evidence of the local Sussex flint, which has been quarried since Neolithic times:
One of the attractive things about older buildings is their use of the local stone, giving a town or city a distinct identity, whether it's the beautiful Bath Stone or 'Granite City' of Aberdeen. Some of the most successful modern buildings of recent years have managed to acknowledge this heritage without betraying their contemporary origins.
6. Good Local Authority Housing:
These well-built council flats, which look down on the row of Edwardian houses, blend in well with the townscape and don't suffer from the same degree of ghettoisation that happens with larger, badly-designed estates. The contrast between the haves and have-nots isn't as marked as it is in London suburbs like Clapham.
7. Civic Pride
You could almost walk past this simple flower pot, placed outside a house next to a public footpath, without noticing it:
However, it tells us two very important things about Lewes. First, that it is possible to leave a pot outside your house without fear of theft or vandalism. Second, that someone has made an effort to provide some colour for the benefit of passers-by.
The success of any community is perhaps the cumulative result of these small gestures of fellowship, from something as simple as someone bothering to polish their brass door knocker, to the local litter pick, where volunteers clean-up pathways and parks.
Obviously I'm only a layman and this Lewes-centric argument probably falls apart when applied to other towns. If I lived in Amsterdam or Venice, I'd probably be recommending more water. If I was in Santa Barbara, I might say that money was the answer.
But whilst my crude generalisations may not be up to Ruskin's standards, I think they contain a kernel of truth.
I realise that Lewes itself might not be everyone's cup of tea - a little too twee and English, perhaps. But the key elements that make it work as a town can, I suspect, also be found in other successful towns the world over.