What the Phoenix Project means for Lewes and a more sustainable future

It’s a privilege to design a piece of town with as many stories as Lewes, but it’s also an opportunity to create a better, more sustainable way of living, writes Jonathan Smales, Founder and CEO of Human Nature

It’s curious how, when working on a project as big, bold and complex as the Phoenix here in Lewes, time speeds along at what feels like two or three times its natural rate. I pinch myself; it feels like only moments ago we signed for the land. Yet here we are, fast-approaching the Phoenix Project Design Festival – the team has done great work to get us to this point – at which we will be showing our ideas, plans and designs to the town, inviting you to tell us what we’re doing right and what we might do better.

It’s not every day one has the privilege – actually the honour – to design a piece of town, let alone in a place as storied as Lewes. But when I’m feeling intimidated by the challenge of this (which, by the way, is often), especially since it is not just a new part of Lewes we are proposing to build, but also a new kind of development that helps point the way forward to a far better, sustainable future, one can fall back on the history of this place. Lewes was crafted through the vision of successive generations of gifted architects, builders, politicians and townsfolk. And if one is looking for a different kind of inspiration one can always look to the astonishing foresight and grace of our greatest citizen, Thomas Paine, whose ideas seem ever more relevant in the modern world even though the ‘Rights of Man’ was written in 1791.   

The land at the Phoenix has been blighted for many years now. It sits there, gently but persistently reminding us of a huge missed opportunity to deploy scarce and precious brownfield land. land. Land that could be used to house people well, provide affordable homes, safeguard against flooding, regenerate our economy (playing to our established strengths in creative enterprises of all kinds), deliver new youth and community facilities, a health hub, a network of cycle routes and other sustainable movement facilities and services. And all while demonstrating a major commitment by our town to addressing the crises in climate and the living world and organising to achieve a just transition to a new, fairer and more environmentally sustainable economy.

We at Human Nature are determined to bring forward economically viable plans for the Phoenix that make all of the above possible. The previous scheme that won planning consent was simply not deliverable on economic grounds alone. But viability, while necessary, isn’t sufficient on its own of course. The plans and designs themselves need to pass muster.We are proposing a new kind of development that helps point the way forward to a far better, sustainable future

Doubtless some will find our scheme to be too dense (a much misunderstood, even abused term…and happy to discuss this). But we – and the many design talents we’ve invested in to bring their skill to this challenge – are not designing in the way we are in service of viability alone. But rather because we believe in the multiple social and environmental benefits that compact urban design with wonderful public realm and other amenity brings. When many of what we might think of as the finer parts of Lewes were built there were only 1.5 billion people on the planet, labour was cheap, even indentured, and health and safety was not uppermost in the minds of employers, or government. Now, there are almost 8 billion people on the planet, land is scarce and much of it needs to be regenerated for nature and sustainable food production rather than for housing sprawl. Meanwhile builders are paid tolerably well and we care about their safety. And, do we need any more reminders of the ‘Code Red’ scientific warnings on climate catastrophe and the global degradation of nature?   

So, please come and talk to us, share your best ideas, be visionary, plan for our children’s future – and their children’s — and let’s together deliver a new jewel in Lewes’ crown.