Places for People - Residential areas

© Anne Beer, 2002

Outdoor places in residential areas - some of the special problems which have come to be associated with higher density and high-rise housing schemes

Some reasons why greenspace in the high density housing estates of the 1960s and 1970s remain a problem.

As we move into a time when the building of medium to high density housing is once more fashionable, it would seem essential that we learn from past mistakes. Yet on all too many recent high-rise schemes in the UK, we see a repetition of past patterns in relation to how the external environment is considered. Evidence as far back as the 1970s from post occupancy evaluations of such estates showed that the inhabitants were often initially delighted with their new accommodation just as today, but that within a short period the external environment became perceived as a problem, which led to reduced levels of satisfaction and in many cases the ultimate rejection of these environments as suitable settings for modern residential life (DOE,1972). That the post occupancy research continues to be ignored by the designers of social housing remains a cause for concern.

In many schemes in the UK today it appears that the developers' solution to this problem is to have no 'external spaces' within the boundaries of their site! Where children will play, or older people can sit in the sun as they wait for friends, and where they will see greenery, are forgotten factors. It could be argued that such issues are the city's responsibility, but in the present financial regime they have no spare money to buy, design or look after the land required if such 'places' are to be provided. The increasing evidence of a link between health and greenspace (Grahn, 2003) alone should cause a rethink of this situation - the cost to society of sick, older people continues to rise, yet we know that daily exercise increases health levels and we know that looking out at greenspaces has a positive effect on the human mind and through that on the body (Ulrich, 1999).

There is an urgent need to rethink the role of this local open space in high density housing in general because of the EU's guidance on the need to develop all expanding cities as the 'Compact City'. If we cannot get the older high density schemes to work properly as a satisfactory setting for daily life, then what hope is there in the new developments now on the drawing board and being built at similar or greater densities?

In the main there is still a lack of proper consideration being given to the experiential aspects of the external environment around the home.

The prevalent ideas about the role of Greenspace in housing during the 1960s

Demand for housing was very high during the 1960s. Governments throughout Europe became convinced that high density housing, of the type described from the 1920s to the 1950s by le Corbusier and other architects as suitable for the 'masses', was the answer to providing new housing quickly. Many of the developments that resulted (in the main large slab blocks, with some tower blocks interspersed with 3/4 storey housing for the slightly better off) were initially liked by their new inhabitants. However almost without exception, the schemes became associated with a range of social problems over time. This led in many instances to a mass exodus of the more stable families and the better off to what were regarded by them as more appropriate surroundings for their residential life.

The high-rise housing of the 1960s differs greatly from that being built today - in particular it tends to be associated with wide open spaces between the buildings. During the 1960s greenspace was recognised as a valuable attribute of any area of a city and government-approved standards of provision for different types of greenspace were a major component of the planning process (for example, the British new towns). However, greenspace was only understood by planners and designers in two ways. It was either:

  • the spaces left over after buildings were erected or infrastructure laid out - the Dutch even today call it 'kijkgroen' (green to look at), or
  • those areas of land supporting specific active recreational activities.

Those involved as greenspace designers at that time saw their role as making the area 'look good' and the architects, who for want of any other guidance reproduced the designs of the le Corbusier school (albeit in a modified form), reproduced the 'parkland' settings shown in the architects' drawings of the 1920s to 1950s. The present 'parkway' road systems found in many of the larger 1960s estates all over Europe come directly from such images. The designers of such large=scale estates (for example, Overvecht, The Netherlands, houses over 30,000 people) were indeed spectacularly successful in creating the 'Housing in a sea of parkland' image. The only problem was that this design style was not suitable as a support for ordinary daily human existence. (Parkland as an original design style was invented as a setting for large buildings, but only for a single large building inhabited by a few of the very rich, their servants and hangers on, for people who led a very 'controlled' social life. It was never intended as a style which could create a setting for the daily home life of 30,000 people with all their disparate social needs.) It was a landscape style which saw people passing through or looking down on greenspace, not using it as 'their place', not enjoying being in it.

This limited understanding of the role of open spaces (the green and the hard-surfaced) in housing developments, which existed throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, was exacerbated in its social impacts by being linked to stringent governmental guidance in the UK at least on the quantity of open space to be provided per thousand new inhabitants. The prevalent idea at the time about appropriate design style linked to these space standards does much to explain the vast hectares of open space in such schemes.

The end result has been that much of this space is hardly used and is often regarded as alienating and sometimes even frightening by the local inhabitants. Recent user surveys have shown clearly that those same inhabitants tend not to want to lose any of the open unbuilt land adjacent to their homes - they value its presence and potential 'specialness' highly. What they do want though is that the space should work better to support what they want to be able to do outside and near their dwellings (see Overvecht case study - summary of local people's identification of key issues in the regeneration of the external areas of the estate).

Research since the 1960s has shown that local people find the 'outdoors' of such housing areas as unsatisfactory settings for their daily life (Clare Cooper Marcus and Wendy Sarkissian, 1987). Local greenspace can be seen in the research to influence strongly:

  • how local inhabitants experience their home environment
  • how satisfied they are with it as a place in which to live.


Changing styles of housing area design 1970s to 1990s

We can now see from an extensive body of research that the missing concept for the planners and designers of the time was that the outdoor spaces needed to provide local people not only with facilities, but also with a range of experiences, that is, to provide satisfactory settings for daily life in the home environment. (Summary of relevant research: Beer,1990 and 2000.) The author fears that if the buildings that are going up at present are a guide, this concept is still missed by too many of today's designers as well.

By the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, at a time when the first research evidence of the failure of many high density housing designs was being published, a new issue came to dominate the site layout and detailed design ideas of architects, landscape architects and planners and determined the decision-making behaviour of many of them: an increasing awareness of the need to integrate natural habitats into housing areas. This concept diverted attention from the much more complex problems of the role of the external spaces being thrown up by sociological studies. Instead of addressing the problems of how to design the outdoor spaces holistically in relation to the full range of experiential needs of local people, these designers focused attention on one particular aspect of the human experience - contact with nature - a vitally important element of an individual's experience of daily life, although not the only one.

In the Netherlands and Scandinavia the 'nature in the city' concept grew in strength from the late 1960s to the 1980s. It had a major impact on the way the external spaces of high density housing areas were designed and how the landscape that resulted was managed. Nature was integrated into high density, high-rise schemes such as the Bijlmer, Amsterdam and Beethovenlaan, Delft -ARB check places and get photos. That this approach also failed to produce residential environments which the inhabitants found satisfactory, we can now see was unsurprising: - the planners and designers still neglected to cater for the ordinary every day human experiences - they did not ask the question 'what is it like to live in this house/block and move to it and from it?'

By the late 1970s the fashion for high density, high-rise housing schemes with large areas of open and greenspace was over. Planners' and designers' efforts were diverted into low-rise, middle density housing. Family housing with gardens became the vogue in western Europe. The problem now became one of keeping any open space at all in the new developments - many were produced by private developers who were loathe to take on the added burden of providing open space accessible to the general public. The result of this changing agenda was that the problems of the high-rise estates were forgotten; they are indeed very different from those associated with the sea of low-rise, middle density housing which became the common form of housing until very recent times.


The Compact City - The EU's vision for the future - the lessons to be learnt from the 1960s high density development

On EU advice, all countries in Europe are supposed to ensure that all future residential development is laid out in a compact manner. It is proving to be a very difficult policy to implement - for instance, in Brussels, a relatively high density city, a survey of the many thousands of people who have left to live elsewhere in the past five years has shown that they have done this because they want to live somewhere 'green' (A. van Herzele et al, 2002). Looking at Britain too, there remains a great demand for new housing in suburban style at suburban densities, despite governmental planning guidance which aims at a minimum of 35 dwellings per hectare. It is essential, therefore, to investigate whether it is possible to achieve higher densities and yet retain the 'green' qualities which inhabitants are demanding. The remaining high-rise housing schemes of the 1960s are natural laboratories to try out new approaches. In many instances the apartments and buildings are being improved through the designation of Housing Action Areas. However, only seldom is the 'sea of greenspace' so often provided by the original planners being subjected to a similar level of regeneration. Characteristically the greenspace associated with such 1960s high-rise is a 'grass desert', in a few instances and particularly in the Netherlands supplemented by a mass of standard trees spaced at regular intervals, the whole producing a structureless landscape. Spaces described by the local inhabitants as 'alienating' space, 'nothing happens in it' space, 'boring/ dull' and too often, a 'frightening' space. These are spaces often with no natural environmental or aesthetic value; notoriously they have have been associated with low quality of life assessments by the public who inhabit them. If such spaces can be changed so that the local people feel they belong to them - to their community - then that sense of pride in belonging to and in living in a particular area of a city has some chance to develop. It will not be cheap, but if it works then it will be far, far cheaper for society than demolishing and coping with all the social problems associated with what the local population consider to be substandard housing.

External areas

High- density

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
ess able bodied

Links and References

Books and papers

Beer, A. R. (1990) and Beer, A. R. and Higgins, C. (2000), Environmental Planning for Site Development, Spon, London, p141-211.

Cooper Marcus, C. and Sarkissian, W. (1986) Housing as if People Mattered: Site Design Guidelines for the Planning of Medium-Density Family Housing, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Van Herzele, A. and Wiedemann, T. (2002) A monitoring tool for the provision of accessible and attractive urban green spaces, Landscape and Urban Planning, No. 966.
DOE (1972) The Estate Outside the Dwelling. Design Bulletin 25. London: HDD.

Grahn, P & Stigsdotter, U. (2003) Landscape Planning and Stress. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, Vol 2, pp 1-18.

Ulrich, R. S. (1999) Effects of gardens on health outcomes: theory and research, in Marcus,C.C. and Barnes, M. (eds.) Healing Gardens: therapeutic benefit and design recommendations. New York: Wiley.

Housing design - high rise

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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 13 Dec 2003