Draft Harlow Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document

Ended on the 31st January 2011
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3.Learning from the Best of Harlow

“Harlow is no longer a new town. Its
history is entering a new phase which
will be written by others”

(Harlow: Story of a New Town, F. Gibberd, 1980)

(3) 3.1 Local Distinctiveness

3.1.1 This guide takes as its starting point the particular character and identity of Harlow. That is not to say that the character of the town cannot be improved upon, but that the starting point must be the specifics of the place. This guidance is therefore illustrated with examples from Harlow whenever possible. These examples may not be perfect in every sense, but they show good, Harlow-specific solutions for the particular issue being addressed.

3.1.2 For this reason, we have avoided referencing impressive yet not locally-applicable projects which can often be taken out of context. Similarly, we have not assumed that a generic, best practice approach can be rolled-out in Harlow.

(5) 3.2 Guiding Principles

3.2.1 In preparing this guide with stakeholders, a clear picture has emerged of Harlow’s identity and the aspirations for its development. In this section, we set out some of the overarching principles taken from Sir Frederick Gibberd’s masterplan and cast them in the light of contemporary urban design thinking. These principles have informed the design guidance contained in section 4 of this document.

Compact Development

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 Compact housing groups

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 Natural features such as Todd Brook were protected and utilised as assets for the town (picture by PAS)

“We had set out to build a town, not a garden city. It was only by building compactly that the quality of urbanity can arise.”
(Harlow: Story of a new Town, F. Gibberd, 1980)

“Housing is concentrated more than is usual … The land thus saved is added to the landscape separating one area from another.” (Harlow: Story of a new Town, F. Gibberd, 1980)

3.2.2 Gibberd’s masterplan created a pattern of compact neighbourhoods focused around local shopping facilities that remains a distinctive feature of Harlow.

3.2.3 The compact neighbourhood principle creates a structure of clearly defined neighbourhoods separated by green spaces which are within easy walking distance. It helps to reduce the reliance on private vehicles and assists access to local amenities. This is a current policy objective for sustainable communities.

3.2.4 Indeed, Gibberd’s population figures for a neighbourhood unit are not dissimilar to the Government’s eco-town standard of at least 5,000 units, or recognised research of 6,000 units (Shaping Places, Barton, 2003), which are likely to generate a sufficient population to support local shops and services. Likewise the desired densities of 45 to 50 units per hectare would fit well with planning guidance on density set out in Government policy and the pattern of development in many of Harlow’s neighbourhoods.

3.2.5 Compact development should be supported by a network of safe and well-connected local walking and cycling routes to encourage people to ensure neighbourhoods are walkable.

Integrating Natural and Historic Environments

“The plan for the new town … seeks to preserve the form of the landscape and all buildings of any worth, to integrate them with the new buildings” (Harlow New Town: A Plan, Second edition, F. Gibberd, 1952)

3.2.6 The Gibberd masterplan took a landscape-led approach where the urban structure was formed around the protection of natural features, primarily the Todd Brook valley and existing areas of woodland. This initiated the creation of distinct neighbourhoods, clustered on higher ground, each defined by clear areas of greenspace.

3.2.7 The spaces between neighbourhoods function as a ‘Green Wedge’, a strip of greenspace that enabled the countryside to flow through the town.

3.2.8 The protection of and design response to natural assets and historic buildings is a prevailing issue in the sustainable communities agenda and a important tool in fostering a sense of place and character for new development.

Role of Green Wedges

3.2.9 Harlow’s Green Wedges, an enduring legacy from the Gibberd masterplan, provide a substantial amount of green space adjacent to neighbourhoods, whilst significantly contributing to the town’s identity.

3.2.10 Green Wedges are not merely a buffer between incompatible uses, they provide usable open landscape between neighbourhoods that connects out to the countryside. Green Wedges have reinforced the founding principles of a strong contrast between urban and natural environments, whilst providing direct, open access to the rural hinterland.

Circulation

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3: Spatial arrangement of Neighbourhood Centres and Hatches (indicated as Neighbourhood Sub-Centres) (from 'The Design of Harlow', F. Gibberd, 1980)

3.2.11 The character of street types is integral to sense of place. Harlow has a movement network based on orbital and radial routes designed to free neighbourhoods from traffic. This means that many of the roads in Harlow have a heavily movement-focused design.

3.2.12 Whilst this is appropriate and will remain the case for the existing major routes, a more contemporary approach is needed for new development, that promotes streets as places set within a movement hierarchy and with a different design approach for each street type. Harlow should have a clear hierarchy of street types to aid legibility and provide high quality street designs that match their role and function.

3.2.13 The seamless movement of cyclists and pedestrians was a founding principle of Harlow and its infrastructure exhibits this aspiration, particularly on the inter-neighbourhood scale. This Design Guide builds upon this approach, promoting better connected, more legible, safer and attractive routes.

Legibility: The degree to which a place can be easily understood and travelled through.

Role and Form of Neighbourhood Centres

3.2.14 Harlow was built with residential neighbourhoods grouped around the Town Centre and three major Neighbourhood Centres (The Stow, Staple Tye and Bush Fair) to serve weekly needs. Today, the pattern of Neighbourhood Centres form an important focus and destination for each distinct neighbourhood providing local services and convenience retail within approximately a ten minute walk (800 metres) of homes.

3.2.15 Gibberd proposed that each Neighbourhood Centre should have a recreation area within or adjacent to it, with larger centres including a small employment area. Today, design solutions, particularly when redevelopment is proposed, should ensure that the Neighbourhood Centres are well integrated with residential areas.

3.2.16 Given today’s increased mobility and the changing dynamics of the retail and service industries, there may not be sufficient consumer demand (nor retailer interest) to support Neighbourhood Centres at the scale Gibberd proposed (50 to 60 units). However, they still have a vital role in the provision of retail and social infrastructure within walking distance of homes.

Role and Form of Hatches

3.2.17 The Gibberd masterplan also envisaged that each sub-neighbourhood area would have a centre, called a ‘Hatch’ which would cater for daily needs and include four or five shops, a public house and community facility. Each sub-neighbourhood area would also include a primary school.

3.2.18 The Hatch would be within approximately a five minute walk (400 metres) of homes.

3.2.19 Although in the current retail climate Hatches may not be viable at the scale envisaged by Gibberd, they still have an important role as a hub for social infrastructure and part of the community network.

Housing Quality

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4: Local Hatch providing local facilities, play space and access to public transport

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5: Distinctive design contributing to a strong sense of place in Stewards, Harlow

3.2.20 Housing in Harlow has been developed in housing groups each with approximately 150 to 500 dwellings, each with a distinctive style. This pattern of development created a variety of innovative, architectural solutions but avoided creating an architecturally disjointed composition due to the selection of architect and the choice of materials, and predominant post war architecture and social rules.

3.2.21 Aspirational housing and innovative design was encouraged from the first phases of the new town. Architectural freedom was encouraged in response to the masterplan which set a framework and set of rules for housing groups. The result was a set of consistent qualities of place, such as compact, fairly dense development with open fronts, set within a diverse range of distinctive and identifiable housing designs.

3.2.22 A principle of mixed development was applied to each housing group to accommodate a combination of dwellings for different sized households.

3.2.23 Existing residential tower blocks have been located as part of the town’s overall scene. Today, if taller buildings are required, they should be sited in relation to the local context. They should relate to the movement network and land use, aiding legibility and supporting an active and overlooked public realm.

Well Defined Urban Spaces

”In Architecture we are primarily concerned with the spaces occupied by buildings – the rooms – in Civic Design the spaces between the buildings … We have in our two-dimensional paper planning to be thinking always of three-dimensional buildings or groups of buildings, and the volumes that are created between them”. (Harlow new Town: A Plan, Second edition, F. Gibberd, 1952)

3.2.24 Gibberd’s aspiration for a three-dimensional approach to streets and public open spaces is clear within many areas of Harlow including in housing groups and centres, such as Potter Street and the Stow.

3.2.25 This is demonstrated in clearly defined frontages and well-enclosed public spaces, that are overlooked by the buildings that frame them. This is a principle in line with much contemporary guidance.

3.2.26 This principle has not always been applied consistently, particularly in the areas surrounding or between housing groups and Neighbourhood Centres. Opportunities to improve the definition of public spaces, such as through regeneration, should be encouraged to bring greater cohesion within each neighborhood, enhance legibility and ease of movement and to avoid creating uninviting and confusing routes.

3.2.27 This principle also applies to public open space. Open spaces should be safe and accessible and have a specific purpose. They should be set within an urban environment which will encourages passive surveillance and legibility.

Public Art

3.2.28 Harlow has a wealth of public art, produced by distinguished artists, which forms an integral part of the public realm. This approach is aligned with current best practice. Therefore, future development should continue this principle, integrating public art in a variety of imaginative and creative forms to help enhance the quality of place and identity of Harlow.

Passive Surveillance: The discouragement of wrong-doing by the presence of passers-by or the ability of people to be seen from surrounding windows

Figure 3.6

Figure 3.6: Local amenity spaces described as �outdoor rooms� by Gibberd offer places to stop, play and interact

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