Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Climate For Living

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:

2. Landmarks:

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.


Kristin said...

This was such an interesting post, and Lewes looks like a lovely town. I've lived in a few centralized small towns and cities, and in New York City, and now that I'm in an American suburb, this really puts a finger on what I'm missing about the centralized small towns. Now, walking ten minutes (which would be only on main roads, since there are no footpaths) in almost any direction, the biggest thing I will hit is our local lake, which is also the main gathering area for our community. Otherwise, there's very little - a deli, and then a variety of other houses. Any number of your suggestions could be extremely helpful. Thanks for the great post!

Anonymous said...

As a fellow resident of Lewes I really enjoyed reading this and having the opportunity to be nosey about someone else's perception of the town.

I lived in Brighton/Hove from 2000-2008 and oddly enough I had not set foot in Lewes before I came to look at the place in which I am now living. I have only lived in Lewes for three years, but I really enjoy living here. That said, I have not yet managed to find concrete rationale or threads of argument for what it is about the town that makes me feel so at ease. Reading your post has given me a bit of structure for an exploration of my own perceptions of Lewes. Thank you :-)

I am particularly interested in your last point about civic pride. I loved your phrase "...the cumulative result of these small gestures of fellowship ..." For me, you captured perfectly the sense I experience of network/community in Lewes without its reciprocity becoming overburdening or tending towards insularity.

Martin said...

A very enjoyable read. Balanced, and well informed by your own experience of what makes Lewes a nice place to live in.

I think you've pulled together seven very relevant strands that may well provide a clue to why some places give off that certain 'feel' that makes you stop, and think, "I could live here."

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Well you've convinced me!

Though the town of Lewes has already beaten you to it, being as some of my relations hail from there.

It has a few hideous modernist buildings to prevent it being 'too twee or English', but luckily remarkably few blots on the landscape compared to so many English towns and cities.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Martin. I believe that you're in one of those very places where I've thought "I could live here".

Pinky - it's good to hear from a fellow Lewesian and I'm glad that your experience has also been positive. You're spot-on about the reciprocity not being overburdening or insular. I feel that it's a town of largely well-informed, outward-looking people who are trying to live according to their values.

Kristin - I remember staying at a friend's house in a Connecticut suburb - it reminded me of The Ice Storm - and felt really isolated. I suppose it's a trade-off. I'm in a great location, but my house is the size of a broom cupboard, whereas my Connecticut friend's home was palatial.

Laura - I think the Modernist council offices served a very useful purpose, uniting the local people against any further redevelopment. When you look at what some people were contemplating, including a flyover through the town centre, I think we got off lightly!

Brett said...

I can see right away how your factors apply to my own situation. We live close to the center of Tallahassee, in an old subdivision, Woodland Drives, that has over the years adapted to nature in that "truce" you speak of.

My house is as old as I am, built in 1954, of brick and timber and plaster inside, no drywall. An old golf course, a large city park and several ponds, (winter habitats for Canada Geese), are near.

We have an active neighborhood association, with volunteers doing roadside litter patrol, crime watch, and landscaping. We have picnics in Old Fort Park, where Confederate breastworks are a historic feature. At night, I can hear the "Big Ben" chimes marking the hour from the 1st Baptist Church downtown.

My wife and I are close enough to our jobs at the state capitol and the public library downtown, that if we had to walk, we could, (30 minutes?) Excessive traffic through the neighborhood has been eliminated using speed bumps, so the streets are very walkable.

We were early "settlers" here in the mid-90's, as original owners, with their children long gone, began to move out to housing for seniors requiring less upkeep. Schools in this zone are not the best, so new residents tend to be older couples like us, but we are getting some young families now as well.

Anonymous said...

I live in Hastings, which has the lovely Old Town and some beautiful 19th. Century streets; with slight reservations about Priory Meadows shopping mall, built straight onto the County Cricket ground, the modern buildings seem to me to add to the liveliness of the town and no particuler style dominates - one advantage of never having been a very prosperous town, is that there hasn't really been 'clean-sweep' redevelopment in modern times - it's all pretty organic, which is your point about Lewes;it's grown and changed to fit the needs of the local people. And adjoining Hastings is St. Leonards, with its wonderful Burton St. Leonards architecture - similar but varied and individual. And apart from really good public green spaces, there is, of course, the sea and the beach, with ever-changing interest and sea views...
I also love visiting Lewes; it is beautiful and if anything could lead me to religion, it would be the Friends Meeting House there, which makes me feel tranquil just standing outside looking at it. You're very lucky to live in Lewes, Steerforth and this was a lovely post. Anna C

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I've been thinking about the modern architecture book since you posted about it. There is part of me that quite likes modern design when it is done well. But even in the best of circumstances they only really seem to work if you think of them as objects devoid of context. But life is all about context as you point out in this post.

Gabriela Von Bohlen said...

Your town looks idyllic. I would add children's play areas to the list. (PS: I have some new photographs in my "orphanage").

PAL said...

The most perceptive piece on the subject I've read for some time, and I'm sure old Rusk would have approved of every word - as would Pevsner, Betjers and all the rest of them.

Who you're with - family, friends, neighbours - must be the most important determinant of contentment, but where you are surely runs it a close second. However, in my experience it's one of those pleasures that is almost wholly comparative as distinct from absolute; you only really appreciate a nice place by contrast with having done time in a nasty one.

This blog gets better and better.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful thoughtful post! Another thing I love about English towns is the way so many houses have names or signs of some sort as well as addresses. One of my favourites was a house I saw in Canterbury, where the stone carved sign said, "Peace Be On Thy House O Passerby". A daily benison for the people who live on the street.
Canadian Chickadee

Steerforth said...

Chickadee - I have mixed feelings about the names. In old homes they're usually heartwarming, but there are a lot of postwar houses with really awful signs bearing names that are just embarrassing. I liked your quote from the Canterbury house.

PAL - Thank you for you kind comments. I don't feel quite as confident that I'd get the thumbs-up up from Pevsner, but I think I'd be quite safe with Betjeman. Some people I know would blame my sympathy with Betjeman to getting older, but the truth is that I first watched and loved Metroland when I was in my teens.

Gabriela - I love the new photographs. Please keep posting them, as I am now a regular visitor to your blog.

Thomas - I suppose it also ties in with local identity versus mass production and globalisation. I love well-designed modern buildings, but they often seem to exist in isolation from their surroundings (in the case of some, like the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill, that's a good thing!).

Anna - I love Hastings - a really quirky, eccentric place with beautiful buildings and a stunning coastline. I wish they hadn't built the shopping centre, but it's probably very handy if you live there. If I didn't live in Lewes, I'd definitely consider Hastings.

Brett - it sounds as if you live in a lovely area, where there is a real sense of community - perhaps because it has attracted like-minded people. Plus you have a nice climate, which is something I envy on a cold, dank winter's evening in England.

Sam Jordison said...

This is another splendid post. Can't disagree with anything here... It strikes me that the ideal place you describe has to be developed over time - and, of course, not everywhere has that luxury. What to do whenbuilding from scratch? I imagine the people behind Poundberry would agree with lots of things here... but I don't think I'd fancy living in their creation. It's a pretty tough nut to crack.

Any thoughts on the importance of localism, by the way? It's perhaps selfish, but it's always very pleasing to know that the money you spend will go to people who live near you rather than thousands of miles away... Which is one of the reasons I'd rather shop at a small butcher than a supermarket....

Anonymous said...

What a great post, and how clever of you to think of Ruskin and use his Seven Lamps (or Low-Energy Bulbs). We were in Newcastle for the first time this weekend and were constantly amazed by the successful (we thought) juxtaposition of many different periods of architecture in the town centre. I've also thought quite a bit recently about how important civic pride is - glad I'm not just being reactionary!

Ripley said...

Is there any truth that Lewes has a lot of (modern) witchcraft connexions? Just something I heard - not connected to the 5 Novemeber parade.

I enjoy the beery smell of Lewes - the brewery there gives that river scene a very Victorian feel.

Steerforth said...

Sam - I wouldn't want to live in Poundbury either. It looked much better than I expected, but it was eerily quiet, as if the residents had been forced to leave in a hurry.

Localism is very important, but we are increasingly reaching a stage where only the most affluent people can afford to shop locally, in Lewes at least.

Christine - I think that civic pride became lumped in with patriotism as an embarrassing anachronism, but provided that it doesn't foster bigotry and insularity, localism is surely a very positive force.

Ripley - I haven't come across any witchcraft connections in Lewes. If anything, the town is more resolutely rationalist than most places. Lewes has one of the highest percentage of graduates in the UK (that could have been my eighth point) and most of the people I meet tend to be highly sceptical individuals who are quite dismissive of New Age cults.

But maybe it's all a front, like Rosemary's Baby.

Michelle Trusttum said...

I have shared your post with my husband, who is one of the many here trying to influence the rebuild of Christchurch, New Zealand after a series of earthquakes.

My greatest fear is that we will become tilt-slab city in an effort to furnish commercial premises under urgency.

It is devastating to see heritage buildings crumbled across roads. It's even worse to hear the Minister in charge of the rebuild suggesting anything 'old' of brick and/or stone should now be demolished irrespective of its post-quake structural status.
I think your post has captured the essence of desirable urban living. What a lovely town you live in.

Steerforth said...

Michelle, I've been following the Christchurch story closely because I've always been fascinated by the thought that there's a city on the other side of the world that looks oddly familiar in some ways, like a landscape from a dream. I've 'walked' around the city using Google Earth's Street View and thought that it looked like a place worth visiting.

I was really upset to witness the terrible destruction that took place - the image of the Cathedral was particularly shocking. Since then, as you say on your blog, the story has dropped off the radar, eclipsed by the terrible events in Japan, then Libya and now Bin Laden.

It's a pity, because many people over here feel an understandable affinity with New Zealand and would like to know how people are coping in the aftermath of the earthquake.

I hope that Christchurch isn't ruined by identikit developments during the reconstruction. This is a wonderful opportunity to give the city a brighter future and it shouldn't be squandered by short-sightedness.