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Involving communities in the design of homes

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Design Council’s Sarah Weir explains the importance of a ‘wholeplace’ approach and the five key principles unpinning development that a group of young architects developed at this year’s inaugural Festival of Place

Bradford’s City Park (photo: Tim Green)
Bradford’s City Park (photo: Tim Green)

Design Council has long been advocating for a ‘whole-place’ approach to how we plan our housing, communities, towns and cities. We believe that taking a broader and much more inclusive approach is the only way to ensure we’re integrating the diverse needs of today’s population into new plans and developments, right from the outset. This will enable us to build safe, high-quality and sustainable homes and environments that encourage healthier and happier lifestyles and truly cater for the people who will live in them long after the developers have left.

 

That’s why being part of the inaugural Festival of Place in July was a refreshing experience. As the name suggests, the aim was to create a forum to discuss ‘place’ – not housing, infrastructure, transport, sustainability or any other element in isolation, but all these factors and many others in combination – to inform how we plan and build the homes and communities of the future.

 

There were sessions on climate change, working with communities, smart cities, crime, social inequality, designing child-friendly environments and many other elements that make up the kind of wholeplace approach that Design Council supports.

 

Sarah Weir speaking at the Festival of Place (photo: John Sturrock)
Sarah Weir speaking at the Festival of Place (photo: John Sturrock)

My talk at the festival was on the importance of inclusive design, which bridges all the different factors and considerations that go into a whole-place approach.

 

An inclusive environment is created from conversations early in the process with a wide range of people who will live and use the place, ensuring it is aligned to everyone’s needs. As a result, it can be used safely, easily and with dignity by all. It is convenient, welcoming and provides independent access without additional undue effort, separation or special treatment for any group of people.

 

Ultimately, inclusive design ensures that the diverse needs of the population are accommodated and gives everyone the same choices, freedoms and experiences.

 

Our session with young architecture students unpacked further how we can be better at designing with a whole-place approach and with inclusivity in mind. Encouragingly, conversations about housing in isolation didn’t come up at all.

 

Five key pillars of inclusive design emerged from our brainstorming. The first, a people-first approach, moves the planning and developing process away from consultations to conversations. Communities are involved from the outset, by discussing with them what they need from new developments and giving them a sense of ownership over where they live.

 

The second is that diversity should be at the core of inclusive design. A place should reflect the values of all the people who live in it. Having conversations with all parts of the community will allow the needs of all demographics to be catered for.

Access to green spaces is important (photo: Simon Dewhurst Photography)
Access to green spaces is important (photo: Simon Dewhurst Photography)

Inclusively designed places should also promote people’s health and well-being, and support the environment. This means access to green and blue spaces, prioritising cycling and pedestrianisation, limiting the effects of air pollution, limiting the use of cars where appropriate, and providing good access to public transport.

 

Ambitions for more inclusively designed places need the right education and legislation in place to bring them to fruition. This means upskilling and training in industry and government, as well as educating the public about how they can play a role in the future of their communities.

 

Lastly, we need to ensure communities feel more empowered about where they live and know they have a voice in how it’s being shaped. This, coupled with high-quality and sustainable design, will ensure that we build spaces that endure and that people want to remain in for their lifetime.

 

There are already some excellent examples of these approaches that deserve to be acknowledged. Bromley by Bow Health Centre in London was founded in 1984 as the UK’s first healthy living centre, combining psychologists, nurses and counsellors with artists, stonemasons, gardeners and other community support and activities – diverse services for a diverse population.

 

Bradford’s City Park reclaimed a key area of the city centre as a people-first meeting place for locals, who have embraced it. It has now become an award-winning symbol of the city’s regeneration ambitions, boosting local business and investment.

 

“An inclusive environment is created from conversations early in the process with a wide range of people who will live and use the place, ensuring it is aligned to everyone’s needs. As a result, it can be used safely, easily and with dignity by all”

 

Meanwhile, LILAC is a co-housing community of 20 eco-build households in west Leeds, managed by residents through a mutual homeownership society. This new financial model ensures permanent affordability. The project, which is suitable for rolling out elsewhere, combines all the pillars of inclusive design highlighted here.

 

Back at the Festival of Place, the Pineapple Awards, which Design Council proudly sponsored, focused on celebrating new and thriving urban developments in the UK where people really want to live, work, play, shop or learn. It was encouraging to see such a variety of entries that really had put people and place at the heart of their design.

 

The Borough of Camden’s West End project, creating safer, greener and more attractive streets for residents and visitors, and Leeds’ bold South Bank regeneration project spring to mind. The only downside was the small proportion of entries from outside London and the South East. We need to do more to encourage people from all regions to be involved in and promoting schemes and initiatives like this.

 

The Festival of Place was a superb platform for us all to share our stories about developing inclusive environments. We are encouraged by the discussions we have had.

 

We now return, with renewed vigour, to our challenge of ensuring all those working in architecture and the built environment adopt a whole-place, inclusive approach, highlighting the transformative impact it can have – now and well into the future.

 

Five pillars of inclusive design

 

1. A people-first approach

 

2. Diversity at the core

 

3. Health, well-being and the environment

 

4. Education and legislation

 

5. Empowerment and longevity

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