Yin and Yang: Growth in Historic Towns in the 21st Century

Delegates at 2006 Annual ConferenceThe EHTF has always been ahead of its time. The Forum promoted the virtues of historic towns as fine places to live and work long before the notion of 'sustainable communities' was a gleam in a ministerial eye. Happily, others have caught up but, in order to maintain and create sustainable communities in the 21st century, we must understand what makes them and where better to look than to our historic towns and cities?

The Annual Conference in Bury St Edmunds explored this in depth.

Historic towns are far more than collections of fine buildings. They combine compactness, adaptability, human scale, cultural richness, local enterprise, harmony between townscape and landscape, a small environmental footprint and the ability to renew themselves. In this they are exemplars of sustainable communities.

At the scale of individual buildings they offer the Vitruvian qualities of firmness, commodity and delight, even if they have more than a few 'X Listed' eyesores that ought to be removed quietly. How can new building compare favourably with this? Perhaps by allowing architecture to grow out of our own culture, avoiding trendiness for the sake of it and, in recognising that modesty is a virtue, by trying to create the 'really good ordinary'.

And it's more than buildings, of course: space and architecture are the yin and yang of good places in many historic towns. This being so, it is sad to reflect that the 20th century has seen the death of the street. Streets need to be reclaimed from traffic and all parts of the public realm strengthened as places where people come together to reinforce community identity and cohesion.

If this suggests that all we need to do is to choose the right bricks and paviors we are mistaken. Governance is critical. How do we manage buildings and spaces and how do we get the community to own and cherish their place? By clear leadership and trusting people to behave well, perhaps. Viability is crucial too: high quality development has to be commercially successful.

These might be the necessary conditions for sustainable communities. Whether they are sufficient only time will tell. Maybe the secret lies in keynote speaker George Ferguson's words: 'Property has its duties as well as its rights.'


Brian Human, Chair EHTF