The art of creating community
Two thirds of people polled in a recent survey in Britain felt that a sense of community has declined in their lifetime. A new essay by LDA Design shows the way that new homes are masterplanned presents an incredible opportunity to reverse this trend.
In the coming years, British towns and cities will get denser, more stressed and congested. On top of this, almost a third of all households are people living on their own. The big challenge for any new development lies in creating community.
Landscape-led masterplanning is a way we can respond. It allows us to accommodate the density we need to tackle the housing crisis, with places where people feel they belong.
Landscape is sometimes defined as a vista, or a backdrop. What it is really describes is how people and place belong together, and how each has shaped the other. Land meant home territory in old English, and scape meant to create.
Jan Gehl, the Danish urban designer, neatly summarised the landscape-led approach as first life, then spaces, then buildings. In other words, start with people and how they live, next work on the spaces and places that support this, and only then sort out the buildings.
The essay describes how landscape connects people and place to create community. The essay was commissioned from two of LDA Design’s board directors by St William, part of the Berkeley Group. Each masterplan for St William will be led from the start by a landscape designer, working with the client and architect.
The biggest opportunity lies outdoors, according to co-author Selina Mason, a masterplanner and architect. “It is in the public realm where people meet and come together. This is where our paths cross and we get to know each other. So leading with the landscape is crucial. Not just designing good public space, but changing the order of our thinking, so that the landscape determines the layout of the site and buildings, rather than the other way round.”
The “first, life” approach means understanding the kind of place that newcomers and existing neighbours need. Then the place that emerges over time can be intensively developed but its multi-functional spaces can still provide for a wide range of activity. John Sturrock
Co-author Andrew Harland, a landscape architect, describes some of the ways to achieve a place where people love to live. “Study the site – where it gets the morning and evening sun shows where people want to gather, whether at a café or a natural anchor like a long communal table. Make sure paths are broad enough to pause en route. However tight the space, actively use nature to support social life. A wildflower meadow with straight edges feeds butterflies just the same. And make space for food-growing alongside the shrubs.”
The essay warns of the hazards from masterplanning which is described as ‘shape-making’ rather than ‘place-making’, starting with the buildings and assuming that the left-over space will take care of itself. This approach can lead to sunless canyons and chilly seating, or windy spaces with dead edges.
The essay shows how to go about making a sociable place, from arriving at the right brief to commissioning the right skills.
Photo credit: John Sturrock