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Shared space as cultural infrastructure

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A generosity of shared space creates more time to dwell in the communal setting, says Alison Brooks

The requirement for shared spaces, or ‘communal amenity’ space for all new residential development marks a major shift in the perceived role of housing in the UK. It is a shift away from the late 20th century paradigm of maximising site coverage and plot ratio for maximum private benefit towards a more holistic approach, where the built form is only one of many physical and social components needed to support healthy, sustainable urban neighbourhoods.

High-quality outdoor spaces associated with housing contribute significantly to its long-term economic value, acting as kind of cultural infrastructure. Britain’s Georgian squares and Victorian parks – world-famous ‘shared spaces’ that have weathered economic downturns and cultural shifts over many decades – exemplify this. Good urban parks and squares increase local property values and provide civic ‘breathing spaces’ to some of our cities’ densest urban areas.

While Britain’s squares and parks have proven their resilience to centuries of change, new forms of shared space have evolved to make better use of vehicle infrastructure (streets and pavements) for public use: homezones, shared surfaces, quiet lanes.

Less formal urban spaces allow a closer relationship between the home and the public realm

Without completely banishing the car, these less formal urban spaces allow a closer relationship between the home and the public realm, more intimacy and more neighbourliness. These are the kinds of spaces that have contributed to the particular character and quality of Accordia in Cambridge and Newhall, near Harlow.

At Accordia, a predominant pattern of densely-packed terraced and courtyard housing produced larger homes and more shared landscape as an alternative to traditional homes with rear gardens. Planted boulevards act as acoustic or visual screens; richly planted homezones form a communal alternative to private back gardens; an open green provides a large, flat play space and setting for a listed manor house; the wilder Hobson’s Brook landscape at its edge connects the development to Cambridge’s natural watersheds.

The communal landscape area within the development boundary is more than 40 per cent of the total developable area. This generosity of shared landscape not only embeds housing in a beautiful, flood-resistant and biodiverse landscape but creates more time to dwell in a communal setting: time for residents to meet their neighbours, for children to make local friends, for chance encounters with a wider public. At Accordia, shared spaces replace private gardens and act as public, social catalysts.

Newhall is an entirely different context for housing, due to its location, the near-rural fringes of Harlow. Within the 110-hectare masterplan by Studio REAL, the total site area of our project is only 1.6 hectares for 85 homes. The development model at Newhall relies on a landscape framework of expansive playing fields, park and existing woodlands adjacent to the development plots.

Each 100 unit development site within the masterplan is embedded in a specific landscape topography, with shared spaces both inside and beyond the site boundary. As a counterpoint to the surrounding expanses, the ‘village’ character of Newhall reflects the legacy of the Essex Design Guide. North-south streets and avenues are primary thoroughfares with higher-density building typologies while secondary (east-west) streets are shared, multi-purpose, outdoor rooms.

At Newhall the mainly uninterrupted space between house fronts creates a sense of communality

Within Newhall there is no defined ‘public footpath’ separating the lane from each home’s front path and side courtyard space – only subtle changes in paving material. Edges to parking spaces and house plots are defined by granite setts. This mainly uninterrupted level space between house fronts creates a sense of communality; the street belongs to the houses, and vice versa.

It’s still important to articulate the transition between public shared space and private dwelling. Planted beds between each courtyard house are an opportunity for small private gardens and trees to soften the street over time. Communal landscaped areas are maintained by landscape contractors and paid for through residents’ annual maintenance charges.

The front porch is a further, architectural filtering element between street and house. Porches are recessed within the volume of the building, rather than ‘added on’, and offer a setting for benches or potted plants. To make porches feel welcoming, it’s crucial that front doors are mostly transparent. All of the front doors at Newhall are fully glazed, or have glazed sidelights and fanlights. Transparency and light emanating from the front hall of a house, inviting approach, affirms the sociability and trust that characterise good neighbourhoods.

  • Alison Brooks is founding director of Alison Brooks Architects
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