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edge took to the streets of Upton, Northamptonshire!

At edge, we believe that site visits are the best way to learn about places, highlighting elements which we feel are successful whilst also allowing us to see where and how we would design a development differently. edge took to the streets of Upton in Northamptonshire, a Sustainable Urban Extension comprised of almost 1,400 dwellings, where 22% are affordable and 100% are rated BREEAM ‘Excellent’. This scheme was developed by the Upton Working Group (2001) in partnership with Northampton Borough Council (NBC), English Partnerships (EP) and the Prince’s Foundation. This team of stakeholders strived for Upton to achieve five core principles: social diversity, environmental sustainability, long-term biodiversity, local identity and liveability. Our site visit allowed us to explore and observe how this development has matured and whether these principles have been achieved. We set out to understand its overall success in terms of both functionality and aesthetic urban design.

The quirky personality of Upton has clearly been expressed through the wonderfully varied housing forms and materials within each distinct ‘zone’ of the development, achieved both through dwelling design (the mass, scale, and form) and material choice. For instance, traditional stone (commonly ironstone or rubble stone walls) has been used on smaller two storey homes, along cobbled streets with shared vehicular and pedestrian spaces to create a quaint village ambience; whereas more contemporary materials have been used on 3 and 4 story buildings parallel to large, reed-filled swales to create avenues with a coastal quality. As a result, Upton does not feel outdated nor does it feel out of place. Instead, Upton is an exciting development which encourages exploration and appeals to everybody, achieving ‘social diversity’.

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The average density of Upton is moderately high at 52 dwellings per hectare, yet the incorporation of wide pavements and generously sized swales integrated throughout the scheme opens up the streets and creates a feeling of spaciousness and a sense of community, allowing the development to breathe. The wide pavements also encourage pedestrian activity, increasing the walkability of Upton for everyone even during peak periods. Each dwelling only has access to an average of 1.5/2 car parking spaces, and so residents are encouraged to walk, cycle, and take public transport. These strategies increase the sustainability of the development and improve the overall health of the community, creating a more ‘liveable’ settlement.

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Every building has a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating – classifying all as ‘Ecohomes’. There are a high volume of photovoltaic panels and south-facing conservatories which capture and retain natural sunlight and heat gain; resulting in the ‘environmental sustainability’ of the scheme. It was also fantastic to discover that Upton’s SUDS have been integrated throughout the masterplan with both functional and aesthetic success, contributing to both ‘long-term biodiversity’ and Upton’s ‘local identity’ through the generation of distinctive landscapes. These swales were required to reduce flood risk by storing and infiltrating water runoff; yet they have also been utilised to generate attractive green corridors which soften the streets, providing opportunities for residents to undertake informal activities and come together as a community.

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Unfortunately, in some areas, the poorly maintained and rather expansive pavements and swales were often out of proportion to the street, making Upton feel a little neglected, soulless and unloved. There also appears to be a lack of local amenities, benches and facilities, so people are not encouraged to socialise or even rest outdoors for prolonged periods of time. The use of communal parking courtyards can reduce the clutter of vehicles parked along the streets, however their use in Upton is extensive and instead they increase the risk of crime, dead spaces, and overlooking into private property.

In hindsight, residential developments like that of Upton should consider establishing more intimate spaces, providing landmarks, street furniture and opportunity for activities such as outdoor fitness equipment which will encourage interest and interaction among the community. Pavements can also be better maintained through management strategies, and they should not be much wider than two metres, activated with more commercial and community uses to provide diverse activity on the streets throughout both the day and night. Parking on plot and the use of private garages for both cars and bicycles should further be introduced to create a more active street frontage, and to reduce the hazardous, hidden spaces created by communal car courtyards. These methods will expand the streets use from solely serving transport, to becoming successful and vibrant public spaces which can also serve the community.

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Although there will inevitably be improvements to be made, our overall verdict is that Upton is a distinctive and unique development which has successfully achieved the original principles set by the Upton Working Group to create a Sustainable Urban Extension. We would recommend that the landscape maintenance strategy should be reviewed, and a retrospective programme of activities and community facilities should be implemented to improve the engagement with the public realm and increase the use of the large open spaces. Upton should be used as a precedent for future development, inspiring developers to consider a greater variation of building forms and to work with the environmental constraints of a site instead of avoiding them which will help create places and spaces that are both functional, and beautiful.

Written by Astrid Guthier, edgeUD Consultant

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