6B) Community

We should be building places where our social connections thrive and where people can do things that matter to them. There has long been debate amongst planners about the type of neighbourhood that encourages communities to develop. The answer is probably that design is not the most important factor compared to personal connections and networks.

The plans of the 1960s and 70s were often based on small groups of 20 or so homes around a cul-de-sac or a green space, on the basis that they would form a community. These did occasionally create communities but planners realised eventually that it was difficult to impose communities in this way. There is research that suggests that, as humans, we feel most comfortable in communities of around 150 people (known as Dunbar’s number). The reason is that there are few enough people to be on nodding acquaintance and to recognise most people but enough to be able to choose who to engage with. This can be useful for example in designing blocks of flats.

Places to meet

We need to create places that enable people to meet and interact. We know for example that the number of neighbours that people know is much lower on busy streets. The ‘public realm’ (the shared space between buildings) is important because it is where interaction takes place. It needs to be safe and attractive and can take a number of forms:

Public spaces

These include streets, squares, pocket parks and public playgrounds. These are spaces that can be used by everyone, not just the local community and they need to be overlooked and safe. They are particularly important in neighbourhoods of individual houses where there are fewer communal facilities. Local streets can be turned into home zones or play streets to facilitate this and it is important to consider the width of pavements, potential sitting areas, space for community events and the dominance of parked cars.

Communal Gardens

Courtyards and communal gardens tend to be at the rear of properties and are largely for the use of residents. Apartment buildings should include communal gardens at ground and roof level. These should be accessible from stair cores and accommodate a range of uses such as play space for small children, sitting areas, communal barbecues and food growing. It is also possible to create communal space within housing blocks with a strip of back gardens giving onto a shared green space.

Shared facilities

Within apartments it is also possible to provide internal spaces to meet. This starts with small details like the width of corridors and the size of foyers. However, some private rented blocks include shared lounges, cinema rooms and gyms. Co-housing schemes can also include a community building (eg Marmalade Lane, below) with a community hall for eating and events and communal facilities such as a laundry and even guest bedrooms.

What You Can Do

Communities

Think about where people come together and meet in your neighbourhood, whether on the street square or a communal garden. Is that space fit for purpose or is it clogged with cars, dominated with traffic or lacking in facilities? Ask people how they would like these spaces to be improved and pilot ideas by applying for temporary street closure orders, throwing a street party starting a community garden or finding temporary uses for small pieces of landscape or vacant sites.

Developers and Designers

Consult with local people and understand the local community: who it includes, where they meet and how it operates. Then build your scheme to be part of this community. Don’t put up fences or walls but integrate with the existing street network and public spaces and make them better. Consider public, communal and shared facilities as part of masterplans.

Councils

Understand the communities of your area, map the network of local groups and neighbourhoods and develop them into a mutual support network. Support communities in facilitating local events and street closures where necessary and work with developers to encourage the development of new communities in a new development.

Case study

6B) The Malings, Newcastle

The Malings is a neighbourhood of seventy-six homes located in the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle.

Drawing inspiration from the local Tyneside Flat, in the form of stacked duplexes, the development is an exemplar in creating a sociable urban neighbourhood. The scheme’s design – a series of splayed blocks, like an outstretched hand provides glimpsed views of the River Ouse from

all the apartments. No two homes are identical, and every home has its own brightly coloured front door onto the street, helping to animate the streets and increase the chances for informal encounters with neighbours every time you enter or leave your home.

Communal cycle stores and recycling areas become opportunities for further informal encounters between people and promote a culture of sharing that can perhaps best be seen within the communal micro- allotments that sit between the housing blocks. Another successful addition to the scheme is a large feasting table where residents host events and parties.

Low walls and planters encourage conversations between neighbours, fostering a sense of community and helping to develop a pleasant neighbourhood. There are times when you want your own space as well, so each home also has its own private open space either in the form of a rear garden or a roof terrace.

The Malings has attracted a vibrant, diverse community of creative residents who readily engage in the residents’ association. The development has also kickstarted the regeneration of the Ouseburn Valley; since its completion, a popular pottery/café and a microbrewery/ beer garden have opened nearby.

“If somebody needs to borrow something, a quick post on the Facebook group
and someone will usually come up trumps… Some have even been known to loan their house to a neighbour for a weekend when relatives come to stay.”
– STUART WANNOP, RESIDENT
“I love the mix of people – young and old – and the atmosphere is really inclusive.”

– JACKIE CHRISTER, RELATIVE OF RESIDENT

Photography: © URBED, © TOWN