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“You can’t have a totally structured place and then just expect people to fit in…”

Design for Social Sustainability: report cover, click for link to full report“… building new communities that can flourish and become socially successful and sustainable is as important as designing places that are physically, economically and environmentally sustainable. Social sustainability is an issue of public value as well as the wellbeing, quality of life and satisfaction of future residents. It demands a new approach to planning, design and development that we call social design, which needs to be integrated into policy and professional practice across all the disciplines involved in the creation of new communities – much like the way standards of environmental sustainability have become widely adopted in recent years.”

That quote is from the introduction to a newly published report from the Young Foundation and Homes & Communities Agency titled Design for Social Sustainability. If you agree that this is an area where planning and placemaking need to drastically improve, read on.

This report should be seen as a seminal work. So, rather than offer my own comments, I’m going to let it speak for itself by using its text and diagrams. My intention is to convey the essence of the report; the document itself contains more detail and many working examples, and can be downloaded from the Young Foundation’s website. It’s one of the most important pieces of work that I’ve read this year.

why “social design”?

“There is widespread understanding of the physical and environmental challenges involved in creating new settlements. … However, experience shows that high aspirations for new settlements often end in disappointment and failure.” (page 6)

“We argue that thinking about the long-term success and sustainability of social life in new communities is as important as physical, economic and environmental sustainability. We need a better understanding of how to create socially successful communities and how to use planning, development and stewardship functions to achieve this goal. Evidence about social success and sustainability needs to be integrated into policy and professional practice across all the disciplines involved in the creation of new communities – architecture, planning, economic development, property investment, social policy, development, construction, housing management – much like how standards of environmental sustainability have become widely acknowledged in recent years. In this report we identify the local services and support that are essential for creating flourishing and socially sustainable new communities.” (page 7)

the problem…

“Evidence shows that communities without adequate local facilities, services and community support suffer from a wide range of social problems. Lessons from English new communities identify higher than average rates of isolation and mental health problems, often caused by poor transport connections that isolate people from friends, family and local jobs. Other problems are inflexible housing stock that makes it hard to attract and retain residents, and a lack of opportunities for residents to influence planning and development decisions, resulting in inflexible and inadequate local facilities – all of which have social, as well as financial costs.” (pages 11-12)

…and the four solutions

“Research in China reports that social interaction in neighbourhoods is hindered for long periods of time after urban redevelopments. It identified the need for good quality social infrastructure and local services, support for community development, opportunities for residents to get involved in local decision making, and shared social spaces and activities in new communities. Equally important are the less visible types of support that create opportunities to meet other residents, build local networks and shared social experiences.” (page 9)

“Drawing on a review of international experience the Young Foundation has developed a framework containing four elements that are essential to build new communities that will be successful and sustainable in the long term. These are: amenities and social infrastructure; social and cultural life; voice and influence; and space to grow.” (page 21)

1: amenities and social infrastructure

“Central to the English New Towns concept was the idea of ‘walking distance communities’ where each neighbourhood would contain a school, shops, post office, chemist, church, pub, community centre and sports facilities. A review of transferrable lessons from the New Towns to provide practical lessons for England’s new growth areas concluded that, “where these facilities were already in place when people began to arrive, the community came together and networks were formed more easily.” Support that at the outset can seem relatively insignificant can have far-reaching consequences, such as the availability of direct bus routes to connect people to local facilities and jobs; or micro-grants to support toddler groups, residents associations, sports teams, allotment clubs, and community workers to bring together residents from different backgrounds.” (pages 25-26)

[But, maintaining residents’ long term wellbeing and health needs thought, as recent experience in Cambourne, Cambridgeshire shows:] “…planning for the hard infrastructure alone would never build a community and…would only be done by a matrix of formal and informal opportunities or supported activities. There was a strong imperative for designing facilitated activities to meet the needs of future citizens and their households if they were to take part in, and join together with, other households to build a strong and cohesive community or indeed different communities.” (page 27)

“Neighbourhood-based workers, whether they are volunteers, part of a parish council or neighbourhood management team can create opportunities and spaces for people to interact with neighbours through local events, street parties, public meetings, consultation and community planning work. These approaches are proven to be effective at engaging residents and helping to support strong social networks and working to break down barriers and reduce tensions between different social, faith or ethnic groups.” (page 28)

“Schools, nurseries and play areas have a particularly important role in new communities. As well as attracting families to settle in new places, schools and nurseries create opportunities for people from different backgrounds to meet other parents and build relationships. Early provision of good quality schools and nurseries will encourage more affluent families to use community services and not seek out school places in neighbouring areas, which can create longterm issues with the reputation of local schools. Schools can also provide a hub for community services or community groups, either in the short-term while other facilities are being developed; or long-term by colocating children’s centres, community health workers or youth workers in the buildings.” (page 28)

diagram 2: social infrastructure

2: social and cultural life

“…there is strong evidence that the strength of local social networks is related to a number of outcomes from health to crime. Social capital – the quality of relationships between residents that give a community the capability to be supportive and empowered and a rich cultural life – is important to help people put down roots, feel secure and ‘at home’ and develop a sense of belonging.” (page 31)

“Strong local networks give people many benefits: from a sense of belonging and attachment to a neighbourhood, to local news and information, informal childcare, neighbours swapping keys, to recommendations about local jobs. … Experience shows if this does not happen, there is a danger that residents will feel alienated from their new homes, mental health problems increase, people do not invest for the long term and move away when they have the chance.” (pages 31-32)

“There are various practical ways of building social capital into new communities. Community development workers or neighbourhood-based staff have an important role to play in new communities by creating spaces for people to interact with neighbours through local events, street parties, public meetings, consultation or community planning work. … Another approach that is proving to be highly effective in the UK is time banking: local exchanges where people can earn credits by engaging in community and public service activities towards ‘buying’ other activities.” (pages 33-34)

3: social and cultural life

3: voice and influence

“A growing body of research supports the assertion that community and neighbourhood empowerment – giving residents the opportunity to take part in collective activities that influence the areas they live in – contribute to the wellbeing of residents and communities. … three key benefits of empowerment…directly contribute to wellbeing: that it creates opportunities for residents to influence decisions, facilitates contact between neighbours, and builds residents’ confidence to control local circumstances” (page 39)

“Sustaining residents’ voice and influence in the long term means putting robust engagement and governance arrangements in place that are sensitive to local needs, and thinking about how these will be funded into the future.” (page 40)

diagram 4: voice and influence

4: space to grow

“If a new community is to be successful and sustainable, the place – the physical space, the housing stock and amenities, the social infrastructure – needs to be able to adapt over time to new needs and new possibilities.” (page 43)

“In order to allow new communities to flourish, planning authorities should avoid a rigid ‘master-planning’ approach that seeks to create a blueprint for the future. Rather, master plans need to allow for a degree of ambiguity, uncertainty and openness to change, recognising that a new community will develop best if it is allowed to be dynamic and to evolve in ways that the planners cannot entirely predict. In designing places for the future, planners should make sure that communities and their residents have the space to grow, in particular, to develop a distinctive character, to shape the place so that it better meets local needs, and have scope to change as populations age and shift and new patterns of work and social life emerge.” (page 43)

“In practical terms this kind of flexibility should include creative use of buildings and land, such as adaptable housing stock and if possible, opportunities for community groups to manage or build their own homes. Research identifies the importance of flexible and adaptable housing to provide space for families to grow without having to move away from a community where they have become established. In the US and UK there is growing interest in community land trusts as a vehicle for transferring land and buildings to communities to provide assets and capital to fund the development of local housing.” (page 44)

“Residents in new communities can find themselves surrounded by semi-dereliction and building sites for many years while developments are completed. Intermediate or ‘meanwhile use’ of land and buildings can provide much-needed temporary space for community activities and interaction. Community gardens and orchards, grow-bag allotments in empty plots of land, empty buildings temporarily housing social enterprises, community projects or drop-in clinics for local public services, are among the growing number of temporary projects developing in the UK and US.” (page 45)

“Flexible use of land and buildings presents great potential in new communities, where local relationships, needs and ideas are taking shape. Too often, the default response is to provide a community centre for a new settlement, without considering the needs of the residents or how a centre will be managed over time. More creative approaches to exploring with residents what they need and want, and also challenging assumptions about what might be possible, can result in more exciting, relevant and sustainable alternatives. A good example is The Octagon, the result of five years of community-led consultation and planning driven by the Goodwin Trust in Hull.” (page 46)

diagram 5: space to grow

The challenge now to every planner and placemaker is to integrate this thinking into our work – whether it be masterplans for new neighbourhoods or rethinking how to make existing places better.

The title of this blog is a quote from Marcus Menzl, a sociologist working on the HafenCity development in Hamburg, taken from page 49 of the Young Foundation report. To see the full report, click here. Credit for text and diagrams in this blog should go to the report’s authors from the Young Foundation: Lucia Caistor-Arendar, Saffron Woodcraft and Tricia Hackett. Any misinterpretations are mine alone.


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