Places for People - Residential areas

© Anne Beer, 2003

Outdoor places in residential areas

The home

Clare Cooper Marcus (1976) has shown that it is possible to identify the residents' normal order of priorities in the home environment. Knowledge of this can help the landscape architect in making the trade-off decisions which are inevitably part of the design process. The priorities that she has identified are as follows:

  • The home as shelter.
  • The home, comfortable and convenient.
  • The home, a place to socialise and express the self.
  • The setting of the home.

This order of priorities is important. It indicates why, as a settlement becomes more permanent and as people become more affluent, their interests in their immediate environment shift. For the poorest, what matters most is somewhere to shelter from the elements and other people; for the richer it is somewhere which reflects their own perception of their status and enables them to live as they think is suitable for themselves, that matters. Recognising that this inevitable shift in thinking will occur with increasing affluence means that the designer, when making decisions on layout and detailing, must attempt to think about how a community will develop in the future, not just how it is now (see also A. R. Beer (1990), chapter 7).


The home - spaces outside
Research from the 1970s onwards has consistently shown that people tend to like certain features about the external layout of their estates(see
Beer and Booth (1981) and Cooper Marcus (1976):

  • they like to be able to differentiate their home environment
  • they want the estate to feel open but at the same time they want intimacy
  • they dislike looking at large spaces and large blank walls
  • they want a feeling of vitality

Other common factors in the research findings include:

  • the impression that visitors receive of the approach to the home is considered very important by residents; the view from the windows is also important
  • they like seeing activity, but not immediately up against their windows.

The appearance of the home
Another factor which relates to people's perception of themselves is the actual appearance of the building. For instance, low income groups in particular have been shown to dislike living in buildings which look too different from those that society perceives as a middle class norm (
Cooper Marcus (1982)).

It is only the more affluent who seem to be proud and, therefore, happy if their homes are very obviously designed by specialists (e.g. the Barbican in London and the many small, upmarket estates built in the late 1980s). The richest want their own individually designed and obviously different home, or something old or substantial enough to reflect their own perception of their status. With increasing affluence this has changed and many young people in particular now look for a different type of home from previous generations.

The fact that throughout the 1960s and 1970s it was the poorest who were housed in the 'architect's dream' of what new housing should look like, became part of the problem with housing in the last few decades. The average person then wanted 'a nice little house', not the slab blocks or tower blocks which were built for them and private developers provided this in small estates of densely built semis and very small detached houses - often of a very low standard of design.

Designers must always be aware of the needs of the people for whom they are designing and be able as far as possible to distinguish those needs from their own prejudices. In the case of housing, avant- avantgarde architecture must be seen as for the rich and not for the mass.

As stated above, the view from the house is also important; it forms a major part of the image that the tenant or owner has of the immediate environment and has a strong impact on how they think visitors perceive where they live.

To acknowledge this factor, the views available from each window of the house must be considered individually by the designer. Such considerations enable the designer to make decisions on the detailed location of screen walls, high plants and trees. In this way the view from the house can be controlled so that it meets the individual's need for an image that pleases them, which in turn is inevitably linked to their self esteem.

Once the designer has established what is needed to improve the view, the exact detail can then be modified by aesthetic considerations. For instance, as a designer you should be aware that all the surveys of people's reactions to housing areas show that people dislike looking at blank walls. Where this situation is unavoidable, perhaps because of density problems, then screen plants should be considered, or climbing plants used to add texture, colour and interest to the view. To meet these needs the designer should ensure that the potential users of every home are given sufficient possibilities to allow them to personalise the approach to the house (so giving a sense of ownership) and to ensure that acceptable views are available from the main rooms. These may seem obvious factors, but they were repeatedly ignored in the design of much higher density housing in recent decades.

A recently recognised set of factors which should influence how housing areas are designed is the link between greenspaces in the city and human health. One factor is that the more people walk the healthier they are and therefore the less it costs society to keep them healthy - so accessible areas which encourage walking can be seen to be an essential component of the built environment. Another factor is the way that using and seeing greenspaces has an impact on psychological health and the ability to cope with city life (Patrick Grahn (2003). The recent push for higher densities and the greater compaction of the city is mitigating against this without governments seeming to be aware of the potential adverse health outcomes.

For people to be satisfied with where they live they should feel that the 'place' supports what they want to be able to do. The designer needs to provide the spaces and sometimes even the objects that are required to enable this experience. Below is an example of the list of activities that householders and their families might participate in outside but near the home. In low density housing much of this can be done in the garden - at higher densities a setting needs to be created, designed and managed which will support these activities and allow them to be participated in in a pleasant and enjoyable way. This can be done in many ways (for instance, see the case study of Malmo-Holma).

The home - major and spin-off activities outside the home

example list : activities immediately outside the home

  • drying clothes
  • getting goods into the home
  • cooking and eating (e.g. barbecues)
  • entertaining
  • looking after pets
  • children's play
  • growing plants: flowers, shrubs, vegetables, fruit
  • keeping animals and birds for food
  • sitting on the doorstep or in the garden
  • sleeping in the sun
  • participating in hobbies involving large-scale objects
  • Sitting or standing and looking out of the window

example list : activities in the vicinity of the home

  • children's play
  • parking the car and leaving or arriving in it
  • sitting or standing to watch and talk to: the family, friends, neighbours and passers-by
  • going to the shops
  • going to school
  • going to the bus stop
  • going to the post box
  • going for a stroll
  • walking the dog
  • walking the pram and/or toddlers
  • jogging for fitness
  • joining an informal street ball game
  • knocking a ball around a pitch/against a wall
  • playing a formal sport
  • sitting outside
  • waiting on the corner for friends
  • contact with the delivery services: milk, foodstuffs, home delivery of meals, newspapers, post
  • contact with people carrying out repairs and maintenance

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. (1990) Environmental Planning for Site Development, Spon, London.

Beer, A. R. and Booth, P.A. (1981) Development Control and Design Quality, Sheffield Centre for Environmental Research, Sheffield.

Cooper Marcus, C. (1976)

Cooper Marcus, C. (1982)

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

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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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Map21 Ltd

Latest update 19 Dec 2003