Sevenoaks heaven

Sarah Allan, head of urban design and homes at CABE
20 July 2010

The Victorian terrace is such a strong emblem for good urban design that any housing that replaces it through a Pathfinder programme deserves extra scrutiny.

So it feels a relief when, five minutes after stepping off a train in Rock Ferry station in Birkenhead, you find yourself in Sevenoaks. This is a delightful new neighbourhood and it’s clear that Lovell, which is building 280 homes for sale, shared ownership and rent, is intent on making it a source of pride rather than regret. Of course, the real proof will be when the whole development is complete but so far the signs are very positive.

DK Architects have worked in close consultation with residents and successfully reinterpreted local building traditions, such as prominent tall windows. Along with generous porches, those large feature windows signal openness and provide good natural surveillance. The first units were only occupied last year but residents have commented on how quickly the place felt like somewhere they have lived for years.

Traditional materials have been used, alongside PV panels, and the designers have brought something very welcome to volume development – variety. An urban square marks the northern gateway and there is a good mix of house types, although it has to be said that internal layouts do feel mean, with rooms designed to absolute minimum sizes.

A new linear park, or boulevard, will run through the heart of the site to the railway station and provide a distinctive focal point. What has been built at the moment are smaller pedestrian friendly features that include small clumps of trees which pinch the wider streets, working as leafy chicanes to slow traffic.

It is just at one point that you feel the stitching of the site into the surrounding area – so important for regeneration - has come undone. The end of an adjacent street, lined with well-maintained Victorian semi-detached houses, has been completely blocked off, presumably to address perceived fear of crime. A disappointing response from a scheme that has used so many intelligent design approaches to make the neighbourhood feel safe - from large bay windows and porches that are clearly visible from the street to generous street planting to encourage people to be out and walking.

This article originally appeared in Property Week on 16 July 2010.