Creating Community through Housing

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Author: Bill Palmer

Human beings evolved as tribes and living in community is shown to be one of the major factors influencing wellbeing. But the demise of the extended family and the fear-of-strangers culture, amplified currently by the Covid 19 phenomenon, has created a hostile environment for community to grow in.

After this first phase of Covid 19 lockdown, one of the major lasting effects will be on the nation’s mental health. Isolation, loneliness and anxiety will have been exacerbated for many people and I feel that the number one priority is not re-starting the economy but in using this experience to change the way we live together.

Most of this blog was written before the current crisis but I think that housing development has a big part to play in regenerating a sense of community and it is through community that we can start to heal many of the mental issues that are probably an inevitable consequence of this pandemic.

As I will explain, community generating housing is less profitable than the models of identikit boxes in high density rows that has been prevalent recently, but, as a society, we should start to see the bigger picture. Money spent in developing community will mean less money spent on mental health care, physical health care, old age care and unemployment benefits. Therefore, government at all levels could make it a priority in the requirements for planning approval.

The advantages of community are:

  1. Knowing your neighbours decreases loneliness and increases a sense of security,
  2. Spaces for children to play outside increase their mental and physical health
  3. Humans have evolved to be tribal creatures and so community is a human need.
  4. The motivations and opportunities for crime are less in communities
  5. The general level of wellbeing and happiness is increased by friendly contact and collaboration with other people.

What model of development would help this to happen? Can it be done so that developers still make a profit? I think so, although it will reduce their margin a little. But at the moment, present regulations state that they should expect over 20% net profit margin on their development. This is far more than most businesses expect. Developers could still feel motivated by less and also have the good feeling of contributing to the health of society rather than just spreading the virus of greed and inequality. And planning committees in local and central government could also focus on the community rather than on the numerical and financial side of development.

There are seven things that I can see developers do to encourage the development of real community in their housing schemes:

  1. Build houses in squares rather than rows. This is enormously successful in Barcelona where each square block of houses has an inbuilt community space in the centre which is used as safe play space, sports, socialising and parties.

  2. Build mixed age housing. Facilities for older people are usually hived off into specially built sheltered housing and care homes. Single youth studio accommodation is separated from family houses. Mixing all this up would allow for many of the advantages of the old extended family: childcare for young families, security and society for single people, help around the house for older people.

  3. Integrate work and housing. This would mean that the developments would stop being dormitory areas and start being places for living. Provision for workshops, small shops and cafes would mean that people would buy more from local producers because it’s more convenient than driving to big company superstores. Local economy would be supported,

  4. Place parking away from houses. As demonstrated in the Peabody estates in South London, this means that people have to walk through their community and naturally get to see other people rather than just driving up to their house and decanting into their private spaces.

  5. Create Community Gardens and re-wilded spaces. Green space, wildlife and vegetation increase wellbeing and reduces stress by itself.  Community gardens provide space for people to be outside and meet each other. They also encourage people to be proactively involved in the care of their environment.

  6. Create Beauty: Houses that are not symmetrical, not standardised, and differently coloured are perceived as more beautiful and interesting. Living in beautiful surroundings encourages people to take more care of their homes and their environment. The diversity that creates beauty is often seen by developers as more expensive and it is, but only a little. Having five or six different non-boxlike designs mixed together can produce a very beautiful and natural result, as can be seen in several developments of this type in the Netherlands. Developments in the UK often use three or four templates for different priced houses, but they all look the same. Focusing on different styling and allowing for houses to be asymmetrical and placed at different angles to each other makes a huge difference to the feeling of a development . A good example of this can be seen in Frome at the Piggeries development at the top of Catherine Hill.

  7. Encourage Self-Build: Many people would like to build their own homes, and would naturally take more care, put more energy into their environment and community if they had the opportunity. It would also contribute to the natural design principle outlined above. Some of the Section 106 contribution that developers are required to make in large schemes could be allocating some of the land for self-build.

So my main message is: make community a priority in development and use these seven principles in judging planning applications.

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