Community by design

Atkins | 15 Sep 2010 | Comments

How do you define “community”? First: ask the people who are going to live there. Atkins drew inspiration from India, where neighbourhoods have evolved over the course of generations with a deep-seated respect for tradition, and hopes to apply the lessons learned to community design worldwide.

“These days, in many parts of the developed world, we hardly know each other. We don’t know people living five houses away from us on the same street,” says Sanjay Tanwani, associate urban designer with Atkins. “And if you look at the backs of our houses, there are usually private spaces with fences that rise above eye level. There is little or no interaction at all.”

Lifestyles these days are not very neighbourly. In many ways, we’re victims of our own success. We’re working longer hours and have less leisure time – or even spare time – in our daily lives. There are endless distractions available to keep us busy or amused, and our social circles seem to be growing wider but smaller. Critics despair that children are playing computer games instead of going outside, while concerns over safety mean our kids are not free to venture much further than the front gate.

Privacy is increasingly seen as the ideal, while “strangers” can all too often be the focus of fear and mistrust, and opportunities to engage are missed.

However, the benefits of a clearly defined community are clear: reduced crime, greater social cohesion, security in numbers for both children and the elderly, and so on.

As a consequence, there is now greater focus on the regeneration of local areas being conducted in close consultation with residents. By giving local people a voice in the design and planning of their community, developers and city planners hope to forge a closer bond between people and the places in which they live.

Becoming more engaged

Birmingham City University in the UK has been working closely with Atkins on this subject since 2008, as part of a new Government-

funded initiative on community design, through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) linking academia and business.

In many ways, it comes down to a question of relying on what we know: “The general feeling is that urban design today is very much a ‘cut and paste’ exercise,” explains Birmingham City University’s Dr Noha Nasser, who set up the Centre for Urban Design Outreach and Skills, which examines the academic side of the equation. “There are certain urban design principles that tend to be used, no matter where work is being done.”

“Through this initiative, we’re developing new characteristics for neighbourhoods, where people interact more often because of the physical form of the neighbourhoods and not just because they have to,” says Tanwani, who has been involved in the community-led design initiative with Birmingham City University from the start. “The secret lies in the physical form of the neighbourhoods we’re designing – people just happen to bump into each other more often.”

The secret of the initiative’s success is the involvement of members of the community at a much earlier stage in the design process – during the initial brief, before first ideas are formulated and the standard concepts take over. The partnership between Atkins and Birmingham City University devised a workshop process that seeks detailed ideas about what people actually want from their living arrangements and surrounding infrastructure, as well as offering training to help people articulate their vision of that new community.

The aim is to eschew a formulaic approach to urban design, instead tailoring the work to specific circumstances and incorporating cultural traditions as appropriate.

“Typically, community is only considered at a later stage of the process,” points out Tanwani. “We’re bringing in the community first, involving them from the word go. We design based on what they need and then analyse the structure, putting aesthetics and concepts behind it. You could say it’s a hyper-rational approach.”

“In this project we try to talk to people about what they feel should underpin the neighbourhood; how a site will impact their wellbeing and otherwise benefit them,” says Dr Nasser. “There is also the issue of value systems. People from different cultures place different value on the significance of public spaces and how their neighbourhood dynamics work.”

Into India

Dr Nasser describes her centre as “a grid between local communities and their aspirations, and the professional world of regeneration”. After sponsoring it for a few years, however, Atkins identified the potential for closer collaboration, as well as the opportunity to invest more of its energy in housing and urban design. The resulting KTP, partly funded by the Government and partly by the company, saw associate Tanwani, fully supported by the university, become the consultant tasked with delivering the project.

But while based in the Birmingham Atkins office, Tanwani held his first workshop not in the UK, but in India. Working with Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture, 40 residents came together through the KTP in May 2009 to design detailed block layouts for new neighbourhoods in the capital city.

The choice of India was no accident. Atkins has an office there already, but another key reason was the cultural synergy with South Asian communities in the UK, where the KTP went on to work in November, Tanwani explains.

“The third reason is that neighbourhoods in India are already quite successful in terms of social capital and cohesion in the community,” he adds. “We wanted to take inspiration from that. The vernacular neighbourhoods in India have hardly been designed at all. They have mostly evolved over the years and we wanted to understand how. Now we’re transferring these design principles to multicultural communities in the UK. There are striking similarities between what people want in the two.”

Good forms

One example of the ideas resulting from the workshops is a cluster form of some 15 houses, Tanwani explains. However, these residences have much smaller back gardens than would normally be the case in the UK (around 30 square metres, rather than the typical 60-80-square metre size), all of which converge in a semi-communal space. To compensate, private amenity space is re-distributed within the dwelling in the form of roof gardens and terraces.

Together with small, low walls, they each become “more of a semi-private area than a private area of the house”, he says. Similarly, a semi-private porch at the front includes seating areas that are shared with neighbours.

“We’re proposing more engaging front doors and thresholds with the public realm,” adds Dr Nasser. “We’re creating streets that are sociable – places to play, sit and take advantage of the sun and microclimate.

“At the backs we’re also designing communal spaces where people can come together around social activities – growing your own food or with a sandpit for children.”

The main challenge, Dr Nasser says, will be mainstreaming the workshop way of building the briefs such that it can be adopted across the professional world.

“It’s resource-intensive, because you’re spending time listening to people as well as building local capacity. We’re also educating the people to engage with the design process in a meaningful way themselves. There is a certain resource required to make that a success. When compared with what is spent on community consultation as part of the planning process, the costs are comparable but the social benefits are much greater in our approach.”

Nevertheless, the KTP has already begun to test the concept with the UK’s Homes and Community Agency (HCA), sparking interest in showcasing the work with regeneration agencies – particularly in areas such as the West Midlands, where cultural diversity is particularly high. Indeed, it is partnering with the Ashram Housing Association that serves the region, and where chief executive Jas Bains is a clear advocate of community-led design.

“Cuts in public sector funding mean that community voices risk being lost in the shuffle,” he argues. “Community-led design is about more than putting four walls and a roof over someone’s head. It’s about encouraging involvement where there may not have been before. It’s about defining community in a real and physical way, and giving local people the chance to feel pride of place and control over their environment.”

For Atkins, moreover, this kind of partnership is good for wider business. The project ties in closely with the company’s “masterplanning network” concept – making optimum use of its multicultural expertise from around the world on any given project, whether the UK, the Middle East or China.

Masterplanning developments are required to make the most of existing cases in a location (whether a large city or Greenfield site), be a catalyst for investment, have long-term economic potential and protect the environment.

“We are intending to develop new ideas in masterplanning by using the findings from these workshops,” says Richard Alvey, chair of Atkins’ masterplanning network. “We are hoping this will help derive new patterns, structure and building typologies for multicultural communities, and that we will be able to expand this concept both within the UK and overseas.”

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