Neil Sutherland, Makar Housing and Forest Policy Group
This is the first of 2 blog postings on the subject of housing in woodlands, making the case for more housing and rural businesses to be sited in woodland.
Woodlands make great places to live and work. In most forested places in the world, people live in forests, and some have their workplaces in forests. Across large parts of mainland Europe and North America countless houses are tucked away in among trees. The Scandinavians, Germans, Austrians and Swiss in particular have a great deal of experience of development in woodland, and continue with the practice. The photo below shows a variety of configurations of woodland with urban housing not far from the city centre of Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city.
And rural housing near Bath, Maine, USA, intimately tucked into the forest – and avoiding the open ground.
Trees can provide beauty, a sense of place and inspired environments for living in, as well as utilitarian benefits such as shelter and firewood. Yet in Scotland, few examples exist. In the better-off parts of towns you can find areas of suburban housing with large components of trees, such as the New Town in Edinburgh. And among the landed gentry, having wooded policies around the big house is de-rigueur. But in these cases the trees have generally followed the houses, having been planted by the inhabitants. The idea of planting houses into woods is still largely anathema, especially amongst planners. In Scotland, where forests and woodland have been scarce, we’ve tended to avoid them for housing. But what happens as forest cover increases? At some point it becomes sensible to start letting people build, live and work in forests. Many parts of Scotland now have plenty of trees, but cultural inertia stops that happening; and we simply continue headlong with our policy of forcing everyone to live in, or adjacent to, an existing settlement.
And thinking rather more widely, could it not help the task of increasing our national forest area if we are allowed to live and work amongst the trees?
- People should have the option of building houses in woodlands.
- The running of modest home based businesses (i.e. workshops and home offices) from premises in woodlands should be encouraged, especially where those businesses are woodland-related.
- Thus, small scale “mixed developments” (i.e. housing mixed with small scale enterprises developments) should be allowable in woodland under the planning regulations.
- The occupants should be active in using those woodlands.
- In some cases new woodland could be planted as a condition of acquiring planning permission for houses.
The benefits of encouraging housing development in existing and new woodlands would include making more land available for housing and business activities. It would mean that people had special places to live and work. There is potential for active small-scale woodland management by the people who own the woods their houses are sited in, as in Scandinavia. This would almost inevitably lead to increased use of local wood-fuel, the development of small scale timber businesses and all the related carbon benefits. And finally there might be scope to use planning regulations to encourage small scale woodland expansion.