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Designing green spaces that people want to use

Green spaces
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Dinah Bornat reports on recent research into how residents on urban housing estates use recreational spaces

Good neighbourhood design, we are told, is a combination of its character, its relationship to the local context and how well it encourages social interaction. In design terms, much is made of the contribution architecture can play through choice of materials, scale and orientation of buildings to provide a sense of identity and create sustainable communities. When it comes to the social aspect, however, urban theorists warn us of the danger of conflating the physical design with social outcomes at the risk of attempting social engineering.

Indeed it is an area charged with political and cultural significance. Savills, in its recent Completing London’s Streets report to the Cabinet Office, suggests an urban typology to underpin a planned wave of estate regeneration. The ‘dangerous’ and ‘intimidating’ existing estates could be replaced, they say, with ‘clear through routes from surrounding neighbourhoods … lead[ing] to more local eyes on the street and opportunity for neighbourly interaction’. Using theories of ‘integration’ and ‘connectivity’ and echoing Jane Jacobs’ principles of assimilation and civilisation, it suggests streets are a panacea for urban ills. 

In our practice, ZCD Architects, and at the University of East London where I teach, we are seeking an evidence-based approach to understanding how people use external spaces in residential areas to better inform our approach to housing design. We began with an assessment of six 20th-century estates in Hackney carried out by students at UEL and followed this with a broader study of 10 recent schemes across England. 

During the summer of 2015 two researchers spent a total of 24 hours over two days on each of the 10 schemes. We recorded the time of arrival of each person into the space, their age, sex and method of transport and also the activity they were carrying out. 

The architect and urbanist Jan Gehl distinguishes between necessary, optional and social activities: necessary being passing through on the way to work, school or shops, for example. Optional activities can be simply hanging out or doing domestic chores. Social activities are observing others, talking, playing or supervision of play. We used these same categories and augmented the study by recording groupings of people in order to reveal the extent of social use. This also allowed us to examine whether children were using the space unaccompanied. 

Like Gehl, we are interested in spaces that are able to support social activities. We suggest that social activity is a good thing and we discovered that in fact most activity carried out in residential areas is in groups. We also found that the most dominant activity by far was children playing and at the schemes where we saw more children outside we saw more adults too. 

The social and cultural narrative is that children are prevented from playing outside by a toxic cocktail of stranger danger, digital technology and, of course, the motor car. We discovered an almost consistent level of car ownership in the schemes we studied and we assumed the same for technology use. This led us to hypothesis that the design and layout of the residential environment might play a significant role in the ability to support social activity, children’s independent mobility and their extended use of space.

In 1971 eight out of 10 children aged seven or eight went to school on their own. By 1990 this figure had dropped to less than one in 10 

Children’s use of the external environment has reduced dramatically over the past 20 years. Their independent mobility is declining with ‘significant consequences for the health and physical, social and mental development of children’ (Shaw et al, PSI report 2015). In the UK in 1971 ‘eight out of 10 children aged seven or eight years went to school on their own. By 1990 this figure had dropped to less than one in 10’ (Wheway and Millward, 1997). 

In 1986 Clare Cooper Marcus and Wendy Sarkissian wrote the aptly titled Housing as if People Mattered. Eleven years later Rob Wheway and Alison Millward published Child’s Play, a review of 12 Joseph Rowntree schemes. Both of these studies into how residents, and in particular children, use external spaces in housing estates across the UK made strong recommendations that for external spaces to be well used they should be close to dwelling entrances, free from cars and form a network of interconnected spaces around the development. 

It is during this same period that car ownership rose and children’s use of their local streets for play, socialising and development reduced. In the late 1990s a number of housing schemes were developed using the Manual for Streets guidance that promotes a Home Zone approach to streets, with shared surfaces and traffic calming measures. The reduction of traffic speeds and the dominance of the car in residential areas has been seen as a move towards making streets more community-friendly. 

Our observations chimed with the Cooper-Marcus/Wheway studies. The best-used spaces were directly accessible from dwellings and were shared with other residents. We also found that pavements contributed to the network of spaces called for in the Wheway study but that some of the more recent shared surface schemes were in fact performing worse than should be expected, some with barely any activity at all. 

In a number of schemes we also saw a positive link between children’s independent mobility and their extended use of external spaces. We think that schemes that provide for extended use also support independent mobility; children’s ability to freely roam, to walk to school or the shops and so on. Our report will be published in full this year. 

Through the knowledge we have gained with these studies we have developed a spatial ranking system that appears to match the findings of the observational studies: spaces that are well-used and support unaccompanied use by children and extended use by the community are ones that have direct access from dwellings, are distributed within the scheme, rather than on the edge and, in the best cases, form a network across the neighbourhood. 

We visualise these rankings with a series of maps, which we are developing to better plan and predict how external spaces might be used and how they can best contribute to the community as a whole. We are suggesting that more needs to be done than just applying shared surfaces and home zones and that, at least in the UK, the street on its own cannot provide a safe enough environment to support independent access and play for children.

Our work in this area has led us to discussions with developers, local authorities and housing associations, who want to look at both their existing and new estates. We hope we can use it explain the underused and forgotten spaces that are subject to misuse and to support regeneration objectives. We are keen to pilot more studies and to test and consolidate the research through feeding into more post-occupancy evaluation studies, interviews with residents and consultation exercises. 

Beyond this we are using it to influence our designs for new housing schemes. Our shortlisted entry for the AJ/Barratt Home of the Future award is one such example: we take pressure off the street to provide the social space and create direct access to external shared space at the heart of the scheme. 

In urban areas the challenge is just as great. Easy, universal access to safe external spaces is not simple to achieve, but it’s what we must embrace. How else will we give our children the same experiences that we got to choose from?

Lawley Village, Telford

Design Option 3 Planning and Urban Design
Developer Barratt Homes, Charles Church, David Wilson Homes, Persimmon Homes, Taylor Wimpey
Number of homes 3,500

Lawley Village, Telford

Lawley Village, Telford

Barking Riverside, London

Design Sheppard Robson
Developer London and Quadrant New Homes, Homes and Communities Agency, Greater London Authority, Southern Housing Group
Area 45ha (phase 1), 179ha (total)
Number of homes 1,400 (phase 1), 10,800 (total)

Barking Riverside, London

Barking Riverside, London

So Stepney, London

Design Levitt Bernstein
Developer Bellway, East Thames Housing Association, First Base
Area 29,800m²
Number of homes 704

So Stepney, London

So Stepney, London

Lime Tree Square, Somerset

Design Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Developer Crest Nicholson South West
Area 10.65ha
Number of homes 400

Lime Tree Square, Somerset

Lime Tree Square, Somerset

Derwenthorpe, York

Design Studio Partington
Developer David Wilson Homes, Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust
Number of homes 540

Derwenthorpe, York

Derwenthorpe, York

Dinah Bornat is co-founder of ZCD Architects. The above study is funded by the Homes and Communities Agency, NHBC, ZCD Architects, University of East London, Levitt Bernstein and the Hargrave Foundation.

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