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HOPUS Final Conference: Housing for Europe

27 April 2010

HOPUS is one of the six URBACT projects that will end before summer.  Its six partners worked relentlessly for two years on designing coding for sustainable housing stock. The project completed its programme of exchange and learning activity with a final conference organised in Rome on 22-24 April 2010 under the title “Housing for Europe: Strategies for Quality in Urban Space, Excellence in Design, Performance in Building”. Here are some outputs of this two-day event.

The first day of the conference brought the Local Support Group of the Project Lead Partner Citera Research Centre, Sapienza University, together in an Italian speaking forum to evaluate residential policy and planning in Rome and Lazio in relation to the topic.

The Keynote Sessions of the conference filled the programme of the second day together with the presentation of the accompanying final publication produced by the transnational project. Successively project partners set out background and focussed appraisals of their perspectives in relation to the task of achieving new housing qualities. The project Lead Partner and Lead Expert explained how the network had concentrated attention on examining ways of developing and sharing ideas on "smart" intelligent guidance for the design of housing and the public realm. Referring to the example of Hammarby Sjöstad in Sweden the concept of applying a basic urban code was linked to the need to "create the place" where people can have a worthy living experience and where it is recognised that "high quality outcomes are not delivered by accident".

The notion of quality labelling found a ready link to the preoccupation of Delft University of Technology in seeking to promote and realise energy neutral neighbourhoods and cities, including the concept of energy certification. With proven examples, intervention in the energy performance of housing areas seemed indeed to offer one of the most interesting entry points to generate radical changes in approach at district and city-wide levels. In the case of Gdynia and the Gdansk Metropolitan area such a key was identified as useful  - to overcome the many operational, financial, attitudinal and institutional obstacles which housing policy makers and delivery agencies are facing in transforming practice from the framework of the past into a workable and inclusive model for the future. The City of Reggio Calabria (in collaboration with the local University) explained their approach to improving quality of affordable housing inspired by involving a Local Support Group based on the URBACT model. Here a new dynamic is being tested by involving developers and the construction sector to work with the local authority and inhabitants from the outset in the implementation of a Local Plan of Action to implement retrofitting initiatives.

In a topical address Professor Walter Matznetter of the University of Vienna provided a comprehensive view on the evolution of pan European Housing policy and approaches, based on a review of relevant key post-war literature. In addition the significant potential of adopting an integrated approach to the problem was supported by the links established with related URBACT projects represented in the presentations by SUITE (affordable housing supply) and Building Healthy Communities (establishing quality of health/life indicators as a tool for housing and city policy makers).

The main conference day closed with a lively round table discussion in which many of the points raised during the earlier sessions were again placed under the microscope with "design coding" surfacing as a valid instrument to guide developments and "place-making", but also as an advocate of the public interest. Encouraging flexibility but with ongoing monitoring, the watchword "would I want to live in this place" was highlighted as a constant reminder to be referred to in framing policy and projects. In a similar vein the importance of dealing with the software in equal measure to the hardware found general consensus. The generally poor standard of information available in respect of choice and quality in the housing market was set alongside the potentially positive role of labelling and certification in contributing to quality improvement. A poignant reflection suggested that while innovation in the sector is important, concentration on doing existing simple things right, and in an integrated way, would already provide performing (essential) levels of progress in our cities’ housing neighbourhoods.

The final conference day comprised a site visit, where delegates were shown a number of suburban housing concentrations in the eastern periphery of the City of Rome. Emphasis was placed on the gulf between intrinsic qualities of inter bellum workers housing (borgatas) and the deficiencies of mono-functionalism, lack of public transport links, irrelevant and badly maintained public space, concentration of low-income groups which  would aggravate the poor quality of response which later slab-block developments represent as a mass-housing solution. The group deliberated over the incongruous insertion of new housing developments "islands of emptiness" in the same conceptual locational structure, and particularly the manifestation of gated communities where "connection to the place" is difficult to comprehend.

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