Places for People - Residential areas

© Anne Beer, 2003

Outdoor places in residential areas

External areas - The importance of the external environment in residential areas - why special consideration of the external environment is necessary for residential areas.

This part of the online tutorial is based on courses given to students over many years; it also draws on the author's experiences as a practising planner and designer of housing environments.

The external areas of housing estates are as much involved in developing the local 'sense of place' as are the actual buildings in which people live. The perception that inhabitants, visitors and people living elsewhere have of an area (of a 'place') has a direct impact on how those who live there value it, and so affects their attitudes and behaviour in their home environment. Anyone doubting this should look at house prices and how they are inextricably linked with location,location, location.

In Britain, we know how the same design of a house and garden, built at the same time but in different locations within a town, can have a vastly different value on the open market - buyers understand that they are buying into a different 'place' as much as a house type. Their decision to live in one place rather than another has to do not just with different social circumstances but other less easily identifiable qualities, including both the appearance and the functioning of the external environment. These factors, which are about the 'place' and its special qualities, can influence the decision to buy, and even to pay far more for one identical building than another elsewhere in the town:

  • does it feel safe walking round here
  • will it look good when my friends come to visit
  • is there some greenspace we can walk to
  • are there nearby places that the children can safely use

Despite recognising that these factors have such an impact on people's reactions to different housing areas, the idea that the 'outside' is of little importance in the design of housing areas persists in Britain, as can be seen in the soulless housing estates of 'executive' type boxes and much of the new high-density housing at present being built by developers in our cities. The UK government's planning guidance on high-density housing does little to improve this situation, with developers able to cover whole sites in buildings and car parking, provided they add what is laughably called 'landscaping'; in effect this means adding a few trees and shrubs for decoration.

This Part introduces some ideas about how the findings from research might be interpreted to allow more effective site planning and design in regeneration projects and in new build housing. Research into the problems associated with identifying environmental needs in the vicinity of the home have been undertaken by a wide range of disciplines - environmental psychologists and social scientists, as well as planners and designers, but the problem is how to ensure that their findings influence the end product when a 'new place' is created.

In particular this Part relates to housing of medium to high density. The intention is to summarise available information so that it helps the decision-making process about designed spaces in the external areas of housing schemes. In relation to regeneration of decayed or substandard housing the information is also intended for the inhabitants and their children to use as they work with the professional teams of site designers and managers involved in the process of enhancing the external spaces associated with their housing scheme. In relation to new build it is intended that the information will be of assistance to designers and their clients as well as the planning process. It is hoped that the ideas presented here help those involved at each stage of the process to work out why a particular layout, design or management solution might be preferable in one location rather than in another and so do something to counteract the blandness and 'placelessness' of so much recent housing.

The ideas presented here are based on the premise that feeling 'satisfied' with where one lives is an important component of the quality of a person's life.

It is important that all those involved in improving very local open space and particularly greenspace know enough about people's likely requirements of such spaces - so that they are in the position to justify asking for adequate expenditure on the external environment. The aim here is to help to answer such questions as:

  • how might the way in which the external areas are laid out and designed, as well as managed, ensure greater user satisfaction with the 'place' in which particular homes are located?
  • what might reduce the social problems too often associated with the structureless open space and greenspace in much medium and high density housing?
  • is there a way in which changing the outdoor spaces so that a sense of place develops will help local inhabitants to feel less alienated?
  • what (if anything) in the manner in which the physical environment is laid out, designed and managed might reduce vandalism, fear of being outside, etc.?

A well designed external environment in the vicinity of the home, one which supports the many different activities which individuals, families and groups want to be involved in, can make daily life comfortable and tolerable. Such reactions are intrinsic to the success of any 'place' in the city and do not in themselves solve social problems. But a good external environment can make the lives of inhabitants less stressful, with all the benefits which that can bring in terms of increased levels of social inclusion and a lower cost to society in dealing with the results of alienated inhabitants. (Note: In 2003 it costs £36,000 per annum - ¤ 50,000 - to keep a person in prison in the UK. The recent emphasis on improving the home environment, particularly in areas of social exclusion, shows that this has now been recognised at government level - see regeneration website).

For the latest ideas on urban housing read: Jinming Zhou and Ian Colquhoun (2004), Urban Housing, Architectural Press.


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
ess able bodied

Links and References

Books and papers

UK government residential area design advice, Better housing,

Home Zones -UK

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Jinming Zhou and Ian Colquhoun (2004), Urban Housing, Architectural Press.

Housing design - high rise

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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 13 Dec 2003