Places for People - Residential areas

© Anne Beer, 2003

Outdoor places in residential areas

Design approach - for the external environment
A writer who has approached the question of housing design in a way that emphasises the needs of the users is
Clare Cooper Marcus (1986). Reading her book should be a starting point for any planners or designers really concerned with ensuring that past mistakes do not continue to be repeated in the design of housing areas. She has studied housing areas throughout the world, both those that have failed and those that have succeeded. From these she has developed guidelines for designers, highlighting people's requirements in relation to several aspects of the external design of estates.

Cooper Marcus deals with the following categories relating to external areas and indicates what needs to be considered by the site planners and designers and their clients:

  • General site planning issues
  • Arrangements of dwelling units
  • Access to buildings
  • Communal open space
  • Children's play
  • Community facilities
  • Parking areas

She also suggests other factors which should be considered by site planners and designers:

  • Rubbish disposal
  • Pedestrian circulation
  • Planting
  • Street furniture
  • Private open space/gardens
  • Maintenance
  • Security

Another writer who has been concerned with the way in which design influences how people behave in housing areas is Alice Coleman (1986, Utopia on Trial ). She studied high density estates in particular and developed, in the British context, the ideas from the US first put forward by Oscar Newman (1972, Defensible Space). Coleman's ideas were very influential in rehabilitation projects in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the UK.

Further evaluation of the success of applying these approaches would be timely. Have the initial changes in behaviour noted by Coleman in relation to the changed external environment continued over time?


'Sense of place' in low density housing areas
Much of the low-rise housing built in Britain has lacked any particular character, although there are exceptions which are well illustrated in journals. Despite these exceptions it is suggested that the lack of special identity of so many recent private housing schemes as well as the old social housing schemes of the 1970s and 1980s is, to a large extent, the result of poor site planning and a lack of attention to the detailing of the space between buildings in relation to the user's requirements. It is not in the main due to poor design of the buildings themselves, which research has shown to be well thought of by the users - it is how the 'outside' works for the users. So few of these schemes in the UK show any sign of imagination on the part of the developer and even less do they show that the developers have done anything to rethink 'how people really live' in housing areas. The public has continued to accept low standards and a poor sense of place, mainly because of the desperate need to get somewhere to live in a country with a massive housing shortage (at least in the south east).

The sense of 'openness' produced by so many layouts and the 'sameness' of the building style used by the developer, whether public or private, results in a lack of visual interest; a lack perhaps emphasised by the absence of any strong vertical or screening elements in the spaces between the buildings. This results in a sense of 'placelessness'. Writers such as Relph (1976), Cooper Marcus and Sarkissian (1976) and Greenbie (1980) have discussed the problem of 'placelessness' which occurs when a site has no particular landmarks or features. Lynch (1960) too has shown the importance of landmarks in the way in which people develop an understanding of their environment.

It is, therefore, a feeling of being somewhere special and preferably unique which the designers involved in site layout and design need to strive to produce for each housing area. Achieving a feeling of being in a particular 'place', helps develop a sense of belonging and pride in their home neighbourhood. Pride in the neighbourhood is central to the development of the sense of community without which no residential neighbourhood can function properly.


Suburbia - potential for increasing ecological sustainability in urban areas
The present requirement to make cities more sustainable and the associated development of ideas relating to the concept of the 'Compact City' forces planners, developers and designers to address the environmental problems caused by urban developments. In this the role and potential of the existing suburban development and its established green structure of gardens to enhance the environmental aspects of a city has tended to be neglected. Yet this green suburbia forms and will continue to form for the foreseeable future, a major component of every UK city and many in Europe. See
Biodiversity in urban gardens study

A city's suburban area (here defined as low to middle density housing with gardens) contains a considerable proportion of land within a city which is not built over or sealed in any way (mainly within private gardens but also in open spaces, parkland and along transport routes). This land area can, through the straightforward design and application of locally appropriate regenerative design solutions at the level of the individual property, add to the environmental sustainability of the city at large - allowing local water management, local climate amelioration through screen planting and less need to travel for recreation because of the presence of so many local spaces (counteracted of course by the need to commute to work for those who cannot work from home) -See John Lyle (1989 and 1994).

For example, the unsealed surfaces within suburbia can be used to:

  • enhance biodiversity
  • process, through composting, biodegradable waste
  • hold and collect water from roofs and sealed surfaces for garden use and car washing
  • reduce heat loss from buildings, where sufficient trees are planted within the urban fabric to slow the wind, or where climbing plants are used against buildings to create the "pockets of still air" which help insulation.

When the site planners and local communities work together, more elaborate regenerative design solutions can be developed at a neighbourhood level (see A. R. Beer & C. Higgins (2000). These can be developed to maximise the potential of the open surface areas within suburban development. For example:

  • locating tree belts to reduce the speed of the wind as it hits the house and, therefore, further reduce energy consumption
  • managing local surface water flows to reduce the local effects of flash flooding from the sealed surfaces and roofs

creating biodiversity 'corridors' through housing areas, linking a city's more naturalistic open spaces and aiding the spread of species.

External areas

High density housing

A change of approach

User zones

The doorstep

User reactions

 Design approach

The home

The garden



See also the information on Designing for Children's Play in Housing Areas

Designing for the
less able bodied

Links and References

Books and papers

Beer, A. R. & Higgins, C. (2000), Environmental Planning for Site Development, Spon, London.

Coleman, A. (1986) Utopia on Trial, Hilary Shipman, London .

Cooper Marcus, C. and Sarkissian, W. (1986), Housing as ifPeople Mattered, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Greenbie, B.B. (1981) Spaces: Dimensions of the Human Landscape, Yale University Press, New Haven.

John Lyle (1989 and 1994).

Newman, O. (1972) Defensible Space, Macmillan, New York.

Relph, E. (1976) Place and Placelessness, Pion, London,

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
Terms of use: Any involved in education or training may copy the contents of these web pages with the proviso that they always make reference to the original copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
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Latest update 13 Dec 2003