Housing more people, addressing social inequality and generating revenue to fund public services are challenges that can be met together if new urban development opportunities are tackled in the right way, says Clare Wildfire.
Many cities already have a housing shortfall and, if left unchecked, this will only worsen. It’s not just space for homes, but also for the infrastructure that make them liveable and desirable. Creating high-density developments of good quality housing within existing boundaries, on brownfield sites and underused land, will make a major contribution to meeting demand for homes without adding to the urban sprawl.
Building new neighbourhoods on underused or redundant transport authority land, for example, provides multiple benefits. It can provide a more attractive public realm, better local services and amenities, stronger connections to neighbouring areas, improved resilience and new opportunities – things that local residents need and want. Well-planned places where people want to live, work and play, as well as travel from and to, are attractive to developers and investors. Through levies on revenues from development and businesses, site owners can raise money to reinvest in services and keep fares low as central governments scale back financial support.
Foundations for success
Neighbourhoods of the future must meet all our needs – for living, working and simply enjoying the place we are in. Local economies thrive when the things people need are close to where they live and the routes they travel daily. It’s the key to creating a virtuous cycle of more job opportunities, better services and facilities, an enhanced public realm, environment and infrastructure, and improved health and wellbeing.
We have developed a social outcomes framework, built around five core principles, which we use to set objectives for, and measure the success of, the projects we work on:
- Accessibility – to housing, transport and amenities
- Inclusion – no one left behind, diverse participation with rights, freedoms and choice, equality between people
- Empowerment – inclusive and regenerative growth, access to education, training and secure employment, information and communications
- Resilience – inclusive public realm and natural environment, climate resilient and sustainable communities, sustainable energy, water and sanitation systems
- Wellbeing – good mental and physical health, safety and security, access to quality health and social care
Consulting community stakeholders is essential for setting outcomes and objectives that will work for all – and that consultation has to happen from the very beginning. When new developments truly do work for everybody, they can be the catalyst for transformational change.
So, what needs to happen to deliver places that attract people and also bring benefits to landowners, businesses and the wider community?
With more and more people working flexibly, excellent transport and digital connectivity are equally essential. Mobility options need to be on your doorstep. Amenities must be close, too, and essential services easily accessible.
How buildings and public spaces are designed is key to how people use them. Buildings in the future will be mixed use, adaptable and flexible, and encourage low-energy living. It means designing them to be assembled and adapted easily and at low cost to suit different lifestyles and changing uses.
Communal buildings may need to be adapted constantly – a school by day might become a centre for adult learning or entertainment during the evening, for example. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of being able to rapidly provide additional clinical and healthcare facilities – another possible use for adaptable communal buildings.
One way of meeting this need will be through the adoption of design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA), where designs are based on modular, standardised components, built in a factory and then assembled when they arrive on site. DfMA lends itself to adaptation: modules can be added or removed to suit changing purposes, lifestyles and demands for space. Ultimately, they are also easy to disassemble and reuse.
A place for everyone
To be truly inclusive, new neighbourhoods must be affordable, ideally a mix of social, shared ownership and market-led housing, and built through partnerships between local authorities, landowners, the private sector and not-for-profit organisations.
In London, the mayor is aiming for half of all new homes to be genuinely affordable – including through schemes offering shared ownership and rents below open market rents. In Los Angeles, the Metro Authority is working to create transit-oriented communities and wants 35% of all housing there to be affordable – that is, available only to residents earning 60% or less of the median local income.
Inclusivity also means variety, so developments are suitable for a range of communities: apartments for single and young adults, family homes, and housing for older people and those with particular accessibility requirements.
By creating shared spaces that bring people of all ages together, you can create active and vibrant communities that extend beyond family ties – increasingly important as society ages and more people live alone. Mixed and balanced communities foster social diversity, redress social exclusion, and strengthen a collective sense of responsibility for, and identity with, the neighbourhood.
Low carbon from the start
What’s good for people is often good for the environment, too, particularly when that’s the ambition from the very beginning.
Existing buildings contribute significantly to climate change because their energy efficiency is often poor. Airtightness and insulation reduce energy demand for heating and cooling, improve thermal comfort and reduce energy bills.
Reducing use of concrete, steel, brick and glass is also important. All are carbon-intensive to produce. Designing with timber and plant-based materials, and including vegetation in designs, can reduce and partially offset emissions. Making such materials mandatory and targeting whole-lifecycle carbon assessments for buildings would support the development of more and better low-carbon alternatives.
Incorporating more natural materials helps combat the urban heat island effect: a city of 1M people can be up to 3°C warmer than its surroundings, causing physical and mental stress. In December 2020, The Lancet, a world-leading medical journal, reported that annual UK heat-related deaths among the over-65s have doubled in the last two decades, to 8500 in 2018. Climate change is amplifying the urban heat island effect. As demand for cooling increases, energy use and carbon emissions are rising.
During the early stages of design is where there is greatest control over the environmental performance of buildings. Our modelling tool, Moata Carbon Portal, is best used at the design optioneering stage to identify and eliminate carbon ‘hot spots’ in construction and operation.
And then there’s the arrangement of the building: building orientation, good airflow and careful attention to the ratio between solid walls and windows can reduce or even eliminate the need for heating, cooling and artificial lighting. Roofs, windows or façades fitted with solar panels can provide shading while generating power.
Energy demand can be minimised by using heat pumps to convert low-grade thermal energy for space heating, and by use of smart control systems. Dense development with district heating supports energy sharing, enabling excess heat in commercial buildings to be extracted and supplied to residential properties.
Nature provides some of the functions we build conventional infrastructure to deliver – often at less capital cost and lower ongoing maintenance expenditure.
Blue and green infrastructure helps build resilience against the effects of climate change. Natural drainage, for example, can provide protection from flooding. Vegetation stores and sequestrates carbon, and acts as a natural air filter for particulate pollution and some toxins. When it is hot, trees give both shade and cooling, reducing the need for conventional air conditioning, while plants play a powerful role in our perceptions of wellbeing, including our awareness of noise pollution.
Well-designed nature-based solutions can have a dual purpose, such as providing safe active travel routes and, when needed, conveying stormwater.
An exciting new discipline, regenerative design, is emerging. It goes beyond sustainability by using development as an opportunity to regenerate and strengthen ecosystems, benefiting society as well as nature. By embracing regenerative design principles and developing blue and green infrastructure, we can better create an urban realm and buildings that connect people with nature, reduce pressure on already strained natural resources, and address both the climate and environmental emergencies.
A collaborative process
Places are only great if they succeed for everyone. For a new neighbourhood to fulfil its social, economic, cultural and environmental potential, the local community needs to help shape the process through which it is designed and managed.
Technology can aid the engagement process, helping to reach more people and gather diverse perspectives. A virtual tour of a proposed development while it is still in the early stages of development gives stakeholders and end users the chance to see how their requirements and ambitions have been interpreted, and for the design and delivery team to gather valuable insights. Regular engagement, assisted by virtual and augmented reality, can achieve a better overall outcome for everyone.
This is an inclusive, user-centred model for future development, with planners and citizens working collaboratively and sharing responsibility for decisions from the start.
It’s the only way to create a place people want to be, and where they feel safe and can thrive – one that works for them at whatever point they are in their lives.