Places for People - Residential areas

© Anne Beer, 2003

Outdoor places in residential areas

The impact of the garden on built form
The private garden is probably the most used urban space, as householders enter and leave it daily as they work around the house or relax in the garden. It is highly valued by most householders, as for instance can be seen in those countries where people of relative affluence have some choice of housing and opt in large numbers to buy into housing areas where gardens are provided. This has a strong influence on urban form. For example, the vast spread of cities such as Perth and Melbourne in Australia has more to do with people's determination to have a garden adjacent to their house than with the number of people in those cities.

In much of suburban USA the same pattern of sprawling development has occurred for much the same reasons. Even in Britain, where higher housing densities are normal, even for private housing, because of a very tight development control system and because of the high development costs, almost all recent housing areas outside city centres have gardens, albeit small ones.

Private gardens form such an important element of most western cities that they need to be researched in more detail. In the UK, USA and Australia, for instance, they account for a very high percentage of the developed land in most cities. In reality they are the forgotten element of many urban design and urban planning proposals, in contrast to parks and public gardens and woodlands which are all recognised in the planning studies and proposals as elements of concern to town planning.

People and gardens - the meaning of gardens
The Meaning of Gardens: Idea, Place and Action, editors Mark Francis and Randolph T. Hester, Jr. (1992).

The book The Meaning of Gardens differs from almost every other book about gardens, as it is not about how they have been or should be designed, or about the types of plants that can be used, but about their importance as a place for people. It has a much more philosophical approach than that normally associated with literature on gardens. This makes it more useful to urban designers and landscape architects when they are at the planning rather than design phase of a project, as it gives them useful arguments as to why gardens are a necessary part of city planning.

The book covers the history of the garden but in an unconventional way, by looking at how people have understood the garden as part of their daily life. It looks at how we perceive the garden today. It contains a fund of ideas about the garden's role in our lives, viewing it both as an everyday place and as a public place. The book is well illustrated in a way which makes the information in the various chapters more accessible. Whilst some of the more philosophical concepts might seem irrelevant to the interests of the casual reader, they contain a wealth of ideas and information which challenge and stimulate.

The popularity of the garden is not new. One of the authors points out that the concept of the garden was first committed to the written word over 4,000 years ago. The words used to express the idea at that early stage showed that people understood the garden as a 'captured' piece of the landscape, with connotations of a place "to protect, to shelter, to save" and as "a place in which to survive" (Stein in Francis and Hester, 1992). The importance of the garden as a special sheltered place has continued to this day.

The book The Meaning of Gardens (1992) has a useful section on the restorative properties of the garden and of the act of gardening. The garden's therapeutic value is recognised, as is the role which gardens play in people's lives by allowing them the opportunity to have control over their own external environment - a very important factor for urban dwellers in particular, when so much of the environment appears hostile and out of the control of the inhabitants. The fact that "you can be yourself in your own garden" probably makes them such a vital part of the city environment.

People and gardens - Private Territory

Studies such as those undertaken by
Greenbie (1981), Newman (1972) and Coleman (1986) have shown the importance to all residents of being able to identify the territory for which they are responsible. People appear to feel more comfortable in any environment when they know who 'owns' the spaces. Indirectly and probably subconsciously, they know through this knowledge who is going to 'protect' them in any particular space. When passing through an unfamiliar housing environment one is frequently aware of being under informal surveillance by the residents and it is this 'feeling' which makes some estates 'safe' places.

When in a large open space or in a blank walled alley with no informal supervision, people are likely to feel unsafe. Designers need to think their way around any site and attempt to identify the areas for which nobody on the estate will feel responsible. Once identified, the layout of these areas has to be considered in a different manner from the rest of the estate; the detailed layout of the surfacing and plant material has to be done in such a way that those intent on passing through can see that the space is 'safe' before entering it.

The private garden is the home owner's or tenant's private territory. In the northern European climate, and throughout much of the temperate world, an outdoor space with every dwelling has become the ideal; on the type of estate under discussion here, space for a garden can normally be provided without difficulty and even in blocks of flats, balconies can be designed of sufficient size to substitute for a garden.

Residential area designs should be carried out in such a way that it is obvious which land is private and which public land. The private land should be left to the user to use in a way which meets their requirements. However, there is a tendency on the low-rise medium and low density estates for gardens to be of a standard size and form. This can create problems, as not everybody has the same needs and not everybody is willing to make the same degree of effort to maintain their garden.

Research in the 1980s showed that the most important problem for designers was the type of space that could be provided. On many estates the developer (local authority or private) did no more than mark the boundaries of the gardens with a fence, often consisting of no more than posts and a wire. A tenant or house owner was then expected to erect proper fencing or to plant a hedge, if they wanted any privacy in the garden. (Beer and Booth, 1983). However, surveys of lower income housing areas have shown repeatedly that many people do nothing to change the garden after they move to a new house, except at best to add grass and perhaps a very few shrubs. In British low-income private housing, little has changed since then. Even in higher-income housing, gardens have become smaller and smaller, leaving little suitable space for children to play outside. Indeed the needs of children seem to be neglected by present planning policies, which push developers to higher-density design solutions.

The needs of the car seem to have greater influence on the developers' and planners' decision-making process than the needs of the child - the long-term impact on society of this attitude is worrying. While there is increasing government concern about the cost to society of obseity in young children, planning policies which result in a lack of space for them to play safely near the home and at the same time work off excess calories are at odds with that concern.

Characteristics of successful gardens

Because of this, the garden is often not an attractive place in which to sit or work since the lack of privacy dominates and that inevitably means that people feel uncomfortable and 'watched' when they are outside.

The availability of a space in which to play outside has long been observed by educational psychologists as an important element in the satisfactory development of young children. However, gardens of the type provided on many estates for low income groups are often not fully fenced; this means that the mother cannot safely leave babies who can crawl, or even toddlers alone to play and as a consequence the garden is not fully used. Gardens suitable for young children need not be large, but they need to be secure.

Ideally the very young child needs to get glimpses of 'life' outside the garden, with things to look at, but at the same time to be kept secure in a space that the mother can observe when working inside the house. Designers should recognise that it is important that the mother can see into this space, preferably from both the kitchen and living room, so that informal supervision can be maintained.

Another problem that stems from inadequately fenced gardens is the extent to which an unmaintained garden can make a large area around it appear 'scruffy'. On the estates for low income groups no screen fencing is provided and since the residents rarely have money spare to do any planting so as to create the necessary visual screen, any mess in the gardens is all too obvious to passers-by and to people living in nearby houses. Indeed, it is suggested that the failure to build screens at the construction phase plays a major part in developing the unkempt image of so many estates; the development of this 'image' in turn can lead to an estate being perceived as a 'sink estate' where the 'no-hopers' live.

Screening around the whole garden might seem a solution to coping with the problem of the unkempt estate, but there are also problems associated with this, since on the whole adults and children do not want to be totally cut off from their neighbourhood. The possibility of making friends by chatting over the fence should be allowed for, as it has been shown that the development of friendship/acquaintance networks in any housing estate is a strong influence on the way in which people settle down in new environments.

The same surveys (Cooper Marcus (1982) and Cooper Marcus & Sarkissian (1986)) show that the prouder people are of where they live, the more likely they are to help maintain the environment immediately around their home. Given the cost to society of such maintenance, the development of this reaction needs to be encouraged. This interest in the immediate environment of the home also means that the people who live there provide the informal surveillance which keeps vandalism and crime to a minimum, which in turn can mean a reduced cost to society for policing.

Designing successful spaces for gardens

The designer needs to consider the spaces that are going to be accessible from each house and to decide the extent of each of the gardens. Ideas then need to be generated about the possible ways in which the garden could be used so that suitable locations for screen fencing or tall growing shrubs can be identified. It is not that the garden should be designed in any detail, but that a compromise has to be reached between ensuring that the estate will not look scruffy if the gardens are not maintained, and ensuring that people still have a very high level of freedom to design their own garden.

It should be accepted that some residents may want to uproot planting carried out by the developer or local authority, but these are the very people who are most likely to be doing their own planting and in the end the visual impact may well be little different and even enhanced. If funding for the external environment is very limited, then the 'blinker' fence jutting out 2 metres or so from the house is the most useful means of creating an area of privacy. The designer should not neglect to consider the way in which privacy is affected by views from the bedroom windows of houses at the bottom of gardens.

Where there is sufficient space, the planting of even small growing trees can make a substantial impact by creating some screening without totally cutting off the view. Both front and back gardens should be designed to allow access to windows from the outside for cleaning and maintenance, unless swivel windows are fitted.

The front garden has a particular role in this type of housing; it acts as a privacy strip. If it is nothing more than a grassed area, as on many recent estates in Britain, it is not fulfilling its function. On the contrary, people walking at three to four metres distance from a window will get an exceptionally good view into a house, particularly if the house has large windows. To work properly as a privacy strip, the front garden needs to be well planted, not solidly with tall plant material, but with occasional tall shrubs in grass or amongst lower shrubs. This interrupts the view of a passer-by sufficiently to create a feeling of privacy, while also allowing the occupants of the house to watch the activity of the housing estate.

There is evidence that while people prefer their front garden walled or fenced, they also like to see activity outside the home (Beer and Booth (1981)), so a compromise solution must be sought.

On many estates residents complain about other peoples' dogs getting into their gardens. This again points to the need for a secure barrier around both back and front gardens, but it is costly. It could be argued that the residents should provide their own protective fencing, but where this has happened the impact on the visual image of the higher density estates can be appalling, with a rash of different coloured, textured and shaped fences and walls, making an area appear unkempt.

People and Gardens - The garden space

However, if there is sufficient space for planting, particularly of the sort which grows large enough to become the dominant visual element in the scene, this type of personalisation of territory can be encouraged. Where the estate is bare and bleak, perhaps because it is very high density and there is no room for planting, then a random scatter of fences can add to the feeling of desolation. In such instances the designer has little option but to attempt to find the financial resources for walls or fences to be put in at the time that the estate is built.

  • Gardens should be capable of being used for a variety of activities, including the growing of flowers and vegetables; the latter need fertile soil or it should be possible to import it. Therefore, where possible, access is needed directly to the garden without having to go through the house.
  • Gardens should contain areas where it is safe to leave toddlers and babies without fear of their straying.

Gardens provided with housing for the less affluent in society should contain a 'starter-kit' of plants, as happened in the early new towns such as Welwyn Garden City. There, five or six fruit trees and bushes were planted in every garden by the developers.

The greenspace concept in housing

In low-rise housing areas the external environment is usually at its most attractive to residents and visitors if it reads as 'greenspace'; that is space in which planting is the dominant element. The landscape architect's skills as a plantsman are vital if plants are to be properly used. Plant material is not an 'added extra' for decorating estates, but something that can alter the whole social as well as aesthetic effectiveness of the estate.

Each housing estate will need a different approach to the way in which plant material is used. Some housing estates will already have substantial areas of existing vegetation which act as a structure around which the new planting can be 'hung', whereas other estates will have nothing and the designer has to create a green structure. A basic structure which acts as a backcloth is always an important element in any landscape design, as without it planting can appear 'fussy' and can detract from the visual image.

The landscape designer should recognise that residents are very unlikely to put into their gardens any plants which will grow to a substantial size. Indeed, if they did so in small gardens they would be in danger of totally shading out the light from their homes. It is important, therefore, to identify at the site planning stage where large trees can be planted and to do so in locations where the trees will not affect the amount of daylight in people's houses.

In other countries the higher number of sun hours can make it desirable to screen windows, but in the UK most people resent too much light being lost. This is not to say that trees should not be planted near houses; on the contrary, trees near houses can make the buildings appear more attractive. However, the type of tree and its position must be selected with care. High crowned open trees, for instance, allow more light to penetrate than small, densely crowned trees.

Shady corners can be livened up by the use of trees or shrubs with light foliage. This factor can also govern the choice of material for gardens which contain large areas of shade. When the use of trees is limited by daylight problems, it is important that the designer considers the possibility of using climbing plants against walls and fences; they can make a substantial impact at little cost in terms of space and money. Recent work is Germany indicates that the problems of damage to brick walls from self clinging plants is substantially less than was once thought.

It is the way that the plant material grows which makes the image of the estate change; the time factor is, therefore, an important consideration. Some plants stay at much the same size as at the time of planting, whereas others grow immensely. For this reason it is impossible to think of the landscape as static. Once designed and implemented, the landscape and in particular the planting, need constant attention. Because of this it is always necessary to produce a management plan which will show how the plants should be dealt with over time; it should indicate which should be removed and which replanted (some have very limited lives). No matter how good the landscape designer, it is the way that the site is managed which ultimately dictates its visual quality.

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. & Booth, P.A. (1983) Development Control and Design Quality, Parts One and Two, Town Planning Review, 54, 3 and 4.

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

Cooper Marcus, C. (1982)

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

Francis, M. and Hester, R. T. (eds.) (1990) The Meaning of Gardens: Idea, Place and Action, MIT Press, 1992.

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

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

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
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© Anne Beer, 2000
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Latest update 5 Jan 2004