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Swedish towns innovative solution to London housing crisis

Well-priced townhouses in green streets with shared facilities on council land — is the Vallastaden model a solution for London?

Like Britain, Sweden has been struggling with a housing crisis in recent decades, with supply stretched by immigration.

However, Swedes have a long tradition of finding solutions to their housing crisis not through reports, but through “expos” — exhibitions of new housing settlements designed to reflect the social values of the day.

A new community in the southern city of Linköping — which has a population of 153,000 — Vallastaden is the first urban living expo for 16 years.

It opened to the public and professionals in September last year, with visitors coming in droves to see its narrow streets, diverse homes and landscaping.

It claims to demonstrate “the future way of building, housing and living”. The emphasis is on encouraging individuality and greater social interaction in a socially mixed community, with greener ways of living, communal spaces and buildings and innovative construction techniques.

This new 20-acre neighbourhood on the fringes, linking Linköping’s sprawling out-of-town university and its city centre, has been built on a greenfield site using innovative planning and procurement rules which give individuals, developers and architects a free hand in what new homes can look like.

More than 1,000 homes have been built by 40 developers in five years — a much faster rate than most British housebuilders claim is even feasible. The results are striking.

A SOLUTION TO LONDON’S HOUSING CRISIS?

Vallastaden suggests valuable solutions to London’s pressing housing crisis.

Linda Thiel is director of the new London studio of White Arkitekter, the Swedish architectural practice that designed the landscaping at Vallastaden and worked on two of the new apartment blocks.

Thiel says: “The density and narrow streets are very relevant to London’s regeneration schemes and the higher densities the Mayor of London is seeking in the new London Plan.

“The challenges of creating quality living are treated in a clever way in Vallastaden. Use of spacious indoor volumes, with taller storey heights that allow mezzanines and lofts, works well with tighter streets. Outdoor space and landscaping creates additional green ‘living rooms’ everyone can share.

“This space has to be given greater care and attention in denser housing, and it is something we can learn from Vallastaden.”

Pat Hayes is the managing director of Be First, Barking & Dagenham’s new “arm’s-length” regeneration company, which also runs the east London borough’s planning functions and wants to see 50,000 new homes built there.

Barking & Dagenham is where Mayor Sadiq Khan recently launched his new London Plan, and he is a Vallastaden fan.

“It disproves the excuses housebuilders make about not being able to build homes fast,” he says.

“It is a very impressive scale of build-out, far greater than we achieve over here. They’ve delivered lots of affordable, very nice homes at a human scale, very quickly.”

HOW DID THEY DO IT?

Simon Helmér, chief executive of Linköpingsexpo AB, the company set up by the city municipality to plan and build Vallastaden, explains: “There are three basic ideas. The municipality worked up a detailed masterplan, designed by Oki Doki Architects, before selling the building plots.

“We divided the land into 100 plots for sale to encourage smaller, more creative developers.

“We made the developers compete — not on price, which was fixed, but on quality. The way the normal planning system operates tends to exclude the smaller developers.”

Quality points were awarded to bidders in an anonymous contest based on 19 criteria.

Bidders won points for using wood and innovative building methods; ecological kit such as solar panels or returning energy to the grid; for including art; for research projects to deliver better social outcomes, eg flexible home layouts; or for being an innovative architect-led builder or developer rather than a major contractor.

This set the maximum number of storeys for homes to optimise daylight and sunlight, but daringly allowed developers to vary storey heights in their schemes to whatever they thought would produce the best results.

This resulted in a varied roofline and the highly individual appearance of each scheme — something the British planning system seems determined to discourage.

FREE CAR CLUB

All 40 winning developers — including some of Sweden’s largest firms such as Skanska right down to individual homeowners and new architect-builder firms — had to contribute to a communal “parking house”. This multi-storey car park removes parking from the narrow lanes and wider major streets.

The developers also had to help fund free car club membership for five years, with residents paying only when they use a car.

The result? No individual garages or car parks under apartment blocks, and less traffic through the scheme.

THE LANDSCAPING PLAN

Other simple design rules had to be obeyed, such as building up to the back edge of pavements to create street frontages, and the inclusion of non-residential space to encourage businesses to develop.

Groups of developers within building blocks contributed to the creation of communal 2,700sq ft “greenhouses” which include workspace for residents, an internal playspace for kids on rainy days, and room for residents to grow flowers and food. Also included are guest rooms that residents can hire for visiting friends.

THE SHARED-SERVICES PLAN

One key infrastructure element enables the dense street pattern to work. This is the installation of three large “walk-through” underground service culverts.

These culverts house all of Vallastaden’s services, including the vacuum waste removal system, water, heat, power and telecoms, making it possible to have the neighbourhood’s narrower, greener streets.

“For every metre of culvert, we have got back four square metres of extra developable land,” says expo chief Helmér. “We don’t have to dig up the streets to fix services and we can plant more trees that won’t have their root systems damaged by repairs.”

A large drainage ditch runs through the scheme and this has been landscaped into a linear park that’s open to all. A large office building is also included, along with a nursery and primary school, and a big urban park.

THE MIXED-DEVELOPMENT PLAN

Included in the homes built so far are 200 student rooms for rent, 250 homes for market rent, 550 homes for sale and 40 terrace or detached single homes.

Prices achieved are about £440-£650 a square foot, working out at £450,000 for a two-bedroom apartment. A second 10-acre site for 600 homes is about to be marketed.

“The height increases the possibility for architects and developers to be creative,” says Helmér.

“The municipality does not dictate materials or colours. Rules for fire and disabled access must be followed, but the project is an innovation camp for architects and builders. If someone does something ugly, it is only a small part of the whole. But we check out all developers’ claims.

“The municipality owns all the land around and this development has added huge value to the surrounding land. We will get our investment back. And now we know we can build homes for so many more people on that land because of the increased density.

“That is an interesting story that can work in towns and cities in Scandinavia and in Britain.”

Pat Hayes, of Barking & Dagenham’s Be First, certainly thinks so. “Internals stay the same but you can vary the exterior, so once we’ve approved a masterplan we can build much more quickly.” And, more crucially, cheaply but with quality.

Maybe we will soon see a new and better version of Barking’s famous 26,000-home Becontree Estate, built for aspirational working people in the Twenties and Thirties, emerging in east London.

Blog Post from The Evening Standard

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