Neighbourhood design: The view from your window has never been more important

As an urban designer, it was a priority for me to live on a street where front doors, kitchen windows and open front gardens are well designed into the street structure.

I chose a home in a quiet cul-de-sac with great access to local, open space. Cars don’t dominate the environment. Children happily kick a football on the street. And so we regularly bump into our neighbours. But not everyone has this choice.

In this COVID-19 lockdown, more than ever, residential street life – the design of these spaces and how our homes interact with them – is crudely revealing its impact on every community.

Over the last few years, I have written several design guidance documents that aim to define and justify high-quality design standards for our homes and neighbourhoods.

The guidance supports streets that are accessible, interactive, full of nature and are well-overlooked by their inhabitants. Homes which physically and visually connect people to their local community and environment, whilst balancing their need for privacy and retreat, are encouraged.

In my new role at Stride Treglown, co-heading the Urban Design team, I’m pleased to see completed projects of community-led housing and co-housing, as well as more mainstream residential projects that prioritise the community, like Paintworks. I feel very optimistic about driving forward future projects which have connectivity, collaboration and community at their heart.

However, it can be challenging – particularly when working with commercial professionals whose focus is on numbers – to justify the importance of homes which have positive relationship with the street, to each other, to open space and the wider context.

Too often it appears that these simple design decisions, with little impact on cost, are disregarded as either low priority, or something that can only be assigned to high value projects.

There also often seems to be a mistaken assumption that parking spaces are the solution, allowing residents to connect with everyone and everything they need by getting in the car and leaving their home.

When working on Bradford Council’s Homes and Neighbourhoods design guide, one memory stands out in particular. We spoke with a young, disabled woman who often spent long periods of time confined to her house and sometimes bed. She told us that what she liked most about her home was the ability to see the sky, trees and the street from her window. Seeing her neighbours coming and going made her feel connected to her community, whilst the nature had a calming effect on her mind.

In the same project we engaged with Born in Bradford, a research group who have been tracking 30,000 Bradfordians over the last ten years to understand influences on health and wellbeing. They established that the most deprived communities tend to have the poorest access to green open space.

And now, suddenly confined to our homes, we are all glimpsing at a life with a few of the parameters that some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society experience regularly.

Our primary physical community is no longer the workplace, school, the high street or gym – our dependencies are shifting. The view from our kitchen window, our ability to overlook the street and neighbours, our sensory connection to nature and access to local, open space for our one daily outing of fresh air has never been more important. Those who are already residents of well-connected environments are no-doubt managing to orientate this crisis with the support of their community much more easily.

This forced period of working, learning and playing from home is certainly highlighting our need and desire for local, physical connection. There is even a strong possibility that it will bring about a long-term shift towards a more home-centred existence for many.

Built-environment professionals must now realise first-hand the importance of designing places to create a sense of belonging. The impact this could have on reconnecting and uniting communities for more social, environmental and economic resilience is proving itself every day in this crisis.

So now, more than ever, is the time to invest in high-quality home, street and neighbourhood design for everyone.

Get in touch with Sarah if you’re interested in creating residential developments with connectivity, collaboration and community at their heart.