A sense of control over local buildings and places is crucial for people’s quality of life, writes Jonny Anstead
Lockdown is easing, ending a long period in which we’ve faced unprecedented curbs to personal freedoms we’ve long taken for granted. For four months, all of us have had significantly less control over most spheres of our lives.
At a personal level we’ve faced severe restrictions on where we go and who we spend time with, and in our professional lives many have been affected by furlough, redundancy or obligations around home schooling that have conflicted with work.
This loss of control – over our daily activities, health and finances – has had an unsurprising impact on people’s quality of life: reports from the Nuffield Health and the Office of National Statistics report negative impacts on our wellbeing and heightened anxiety during lockdown.
A further study, published in Psychiatry Research, found that those who have maintained a sense over control over their situation under lockdown – for example by feeling informed and knowledgeable about the virus – have been better able to weather the negative emotional impacts of Covid-19. What was most interesting about this study was that it wasn’t actual, accurate knowledge that mattered – it was the perception of being in control that provided the benefit to wellbeing.
The negative effects of lockdown have been felt more by those living in cities and by younger people. These are groups reliant on many of the freedoms that have been curbed in recent months: for example, using parks instead of private gardens, and socialising with friends rather than within family units. And they’re also more likely than other groups to have faced direct financial consequences. These groups have lost more control over their lives than most.
The is one of eight themes being developed by the Quality of Life Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation established by dRMM co-founder Sadie Morgan to make wellbeing central to the way we create and care for our homes and communities.
In our homes and neighbourhoods, a sense of control can take many forms. It might be as simple as having a secure and affordable living situation. It could be about being able to shape one’s surroundings: whether by being allowed to redecorate your home or being entitled to hang a picture on the wall. It might be housing design that enables people to live independently as they age.
At neighbourhood level, a sense of control might involve campaigning to get trees planted on your street, working with others to grow food or managing shared community assets. Or it could be as simple as having a bus service.
All this requires local authorities and civic structures to work to effectively and fairly – to listen to us, represent our views and work on our behalf to address problems in our neighbourhoods as they arise.
The question of control also requires us to look at how we plan and build new places. It forces us to examine how power is apportioned, and how it’s used. The 2011 Localism Act sought to offer greater control to communities, but it has produced mixed results. The perception many hold of the planning system is that it works top-down, with decisions being made remotely, behind closed doors and in the interests of developers rather than people.
Trust in planners and developers is as low as ever. The experience of many is that through public consultation developers focus on neutralising local opposition and doing the minimum to comply with consultation requirements, rather than genuinely working alongside communities to shape their plans.
The government’s recent announcement of its intention to ‘scythe through red tape’, supercharging permitted development rights to allow a wider range of commercial uses to be converted to residential without planning, seems bound to worsen that lack of trust, further reducing the control people have over their towns and cities and placing it in the hands of investors.
Architects have a unique role to play in enabling people to have more control over their environments – both through design of homes and neighbourhoods, but also as the natural arbiters of power through the planning and engagement process. In the absence of a trusted real estate industry, properly exercising this role is all the more critical.
Giving people greater control over their homes, neighbourhoods and lives isn’t just good for personal wellbeing. As Covid-19 has demonstrated, it is key to creating more resilient communities better able to face whatever challenges and uncertainties the future may hold.
Jonny Anstead is co-founder of TOWN, the developer of Marmalade Lane, and a board member of the Quality of Life Foundation