Do women design any differently from men? As the spotlight shines this year on the role of women in the arts, Veronica Simpson tracks down an ambitious infrastructure proposal by a collaborative team of women that prioritises eco rather than ego
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of women first being given the right to vote in the UK. And from festivals to galleries, museums to ministries, efforts are being made to reflect this by highlighting significant contributions women have made and are continuing to make to our culture.
And it is astonishing (shaming, in fact) how many extraordinary women are suddenly being brought into the limelight, both living and dead; scientists, architects, artists, designers, philosophers, musicians, many of them having gone unrecognised in their time or even had their work attributed to their male colleagues. But we are still a long way from parity in so many respects, and we are also in the foothills in terms of defining the particular qualities and areas in which women might naturally excel, differently from men. Many would rather not even approach such a political hot potato.
Earlier this year however I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with a team of women – architects, planners, designers and engineers – who had come up with a radical proposal for how to densify a strategic geographical stretch of land while enhancing rural connectivity and enriching health and quality of life. The VeloCity scheme is the brainchild of Jennifer Ross of Tibbalds, Sarah Featherstone of Featherstone Young, Kay Hughes from Khaa, Petra Marko of Marko and Placemakers, Annalie Riches of Mikhail Riches and Judith Sykes of Expedition Engineering.
Having met and bonded over all-female cycling excursions run by Pedelle (an alternative to the testosterone-fuelled mountain-conquering cycling antics of the male architectural fraternity), the group had beaten off 55 other entrants to win a 2017 UK National Infrastructure Commission competition for proposals on how to develop a region that connects the UK’s leading university cities, Cambridge and Oxford. Soon to be linked by a high-speed East-West railway and an Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, up to a million new homes are planned along this strip by 2050. The competition sought solutions that would inspire ‘truly liveable and sustainable places for the long term…’
VeloCity's Strategic Diagram linking Oxford and Cambridge via existing villages. Image Credit: Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, Mikhail Riches, Featherstone Young, Marko and Placemakers, Expedition Engineering and Khaa
VeloCity offers a layered and holistic approach that addresses health and wellbeing, sense of place and belonging, agriculture and biodiversity. And it does so by putting cycles and people first: linking up existing villages with a network of safe cycling and pedestrian routes; pushing cars to the outer edges of schemes, and placing a thoughtful mix of housing in appropriate pockets. Although its proposal focused on six existing villages, it could be rolled out easily across the East-West corridor and beyond, building on existing road infrastructure in relatively small and manageable increments. This kind of slow, small-scale development supports local industry and ownership, from jobs for local house-builders to co-housing and co-design initiatives.
Hughes says: ‘It’s a very radical solution. We didn’t think they would go for it. How you do it well and make good places to live is an issue that nobody is talking about.’
Featherstone adds: ‘It’s a real opportunity to reinvigorate the social infrastructure, creating lifetime villages with mixed tenures and integration of shared spaces, where people can live, work and socialise together.’
New towns are the standard response, but they focus investment and opportunity in a single area, whereas this allows villages to expand in manageable increments, while improving connections between them.
Says Featherstone: ‘With the high-speed rail network [scheduled for 2030] we envisaged a shift away from car dependency in villages and sought alternatives to connect with major towns. We wanted to encourage local business and bring investment in facilities and workspaces, with each village having different resources. It’s about the shared economy – housing, co-housing, shared facilities.’
Placed strategically around the villages, the scheme proposes quite high densities – 100 dwellings per hectare – which Riches says would be no denser than a Victorian terrace. Says Featherstone: ‘It’s about how you place houses as well – we’re keen on working with the topography to maintain heritage views and distribute housing in a sensitive way. If there is rolling countryside, we might place them around the back of the village. We understand it as being a set of design codes, taking cues from cottages and farms to create a mixture of building scales and materials, apartments and family homes.’
A visualisation by VeloCity of a concept village of small-scale development. Image Credit: Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, Mikhail Riches, Featherstone Young, Marko and Placemakers, Expedition Engineering and Khaa
Since the announcement of its win – which sadly doesn’t come with a chunk of investment to make it happen – the team has been campaigning and promoting the idea in talks with landowners and local authorities (many of which are interested) and at conferences and festivals, including the urban planning conference ReSite in Prague in June, and London's Green Sky Thinking festival in May. And wherever they go, people see the value of this different, less invasive, more connective and evolutionary approach.
Says Hughes: ‘We envisage design working with the infrastructure and changes in technology. We want to break away from big utility provision, introduce 5G and make the villages self-sustaining. Ideally, we want a pilot project. The social benefits of this place-led approach to a growing population could be huge and support really successful economic and environmentally sustainable growth.’
As we wrap up our conversation, I ask if they think that their more collaborative, planet-friendly and community-friendly thinking reflects a more female perspective? It goes quiet. One of them admits (off the record): ‘I think we did think about it slightly differently. We knew people wouldn’t be able to resist [designing] a new town because it’s just the thing you want to do as an architect.
We thought: let’s not do that big, flash, grand gesture; let’s do the other stuff. I hate reinforcing differences between men and women.’ Judith Sykes chips in: ‘The real story is about the collaboration. There isn’t one person that’s taken the lead. It’s a genuinely multidisciplinary approach.’