Places for People - Residential areas

© Anne Beer, 2003


Outdoor places in residential areas

The need for a change of approach

People have feelings about the place they call home

Since the 1960s research has shown consistently that the feelings which occupants have about their home are strongly influenced by their reactions to the outdoor spaces which they pass through as they approach or leave their home, take time to relax or play, or pursue a hobby elsewhere. This factor is ignored far too regularly by urban designers and architects.

In making site layout and design decisions in relation to renewing local open space and greenspace, we cannot just think about what the 'places' around and between the housing blocks look like - that is the easy option so often adopted with devastating results in the past. A 'place' is about more than appearance, or even the objects and facilities in it; it is something that people understand in a wide variety of ways and to which they give various meanings. All these have an impact on people's feelings and reactions to and use of those spaces immediately outside their home.

What matters when designing the spaces immediately around and near the home is what they are like as places to be in

In working out a future for greenspaces associated with housing areas, it is suggested that instead of concentrating just on landscapes that 'look good', we need to put the emphasis on thinking what the new 'places' we make will be like for the inhabitants. It will be important to attempt to understand how the spaces will work to support how local people live, play and work. What will the new places be like to visit? How will they work as places to move through as the inhabitants go to the shops, schools, offices, bus stops, train station, parks, etc.?

Anyone who finds it hard to believe that the external spaces of housing areas have a strong impact on how inhabitants feel about where they live has only to consider what it would be like for themselves:

  • to feel fearful every time they turn a corner towards their front door or walk to a bus stop
  • regularly to approach the entrance to their home through a pile of litter and other worse debris
  • if there were nowhere immediately adjacent to their house where they could happily let their children play alone
  • if there were nowhere near their home just to sit and enjoy life on a sunny day.

Individually these may be comparatively minor matters - but put together they create an alienating home environment. In such circumstances local inhabitants can feel no sense of pride and without being able to feel pride in the home and its setting, it is unlikely that any inhabitants will develop that sense of belonging to a 'place' which the social scientists have recognised is crucial to a successful housing area. Without a sense of belonging, community feelings rarely develop.

Financing greenspace

It costs money to make and change greenspaces and other open spaces, but it costs society even more if whole communities become destabilised and an area of a city becomes known for its level of social exclusion. While improving the outdoor environment will never solve social exclusion issues by itself, allowing the external areas of housing schemes to remain hostile places can accelerate the rate of deterioration.

To justify expenditure on the external areas of a city on the grounds of what an area will look like, has never been a successful strategy in mass housing developments. All the evidence from housing area design is that as soon as money becomes tight it is too easily diverted from what financial decision makers regard as non essential areas such as the external spaces. This factor perhaps explains the woefully inadequate quality of so much open and greenspace within social housing estates throughout Europe. In many sites, the original designers did at least manage to get the grass and tree elements planted and some play spaces made and they produced an estate which in general 'looks' all right to outsiders. But to the inhabitants this has resulted in what they call a boring landscape (see Overvecht case study) and they find it an alienating experience to use their outside spaces. The problem here is not about changing the overall landscape, but about the need to introduce additional elements and spatial structures, thereby making richer, more fascinating local spaces, which will enable the inhabitants to appreciate and enjoy their 'home' landscape.

There are immense social and financial costs to society as well as to individuals, if we fail to create places which support daily life needs and patterns in and around the home - in effect to create a form of 'habitat' for urban dwellers.

We can call the places which people construct to support their way of life a 'habitat'. Describing suitable human habitats is not easy, as humans survive in an immense variety of conditions, even if they do not always thrive in them. Unlike other animals, people can construct elaborate habitats to support their needs, even in the most hostile physical conditions. So much so that it is often easy for designers to get carried away with high-tech solutions to housing and the immediate surroundings - forgetting that what makes most people feel comfortable in such settings is far more important than what impresses the passer-by and the 'professional design' visitor.

Perhaps it has been that very adaptability which has allowed those involved in the planning process (the politicians, the planners, the developers, the financiers and others) to be involved in the construction of so very many unworkable human habitats in cities, habitats which so obviously have not supported the users' daily needs from the start and instead have come to alienate them. The social and financial cost to society of failed housing schemes has been immense and yet for some inexplicable reason we have persisted in repeating the same patterns of housing - the same mistakes from country to country and decade to decade; and at this time when the Compact City is all the rage, yet more unusable new environments are being constructed in the name of high density development.

A successful housing area is one where people feel control over their own home environment and its immediate surroundings, whether it is in private or public ownership

Two authors who were writing almost 20 years ago about what had gone wrong with the way we plan high density social housing sites are Newman (1972) and Coleman (1986). They both studied in-depth the alienation that results if individuals feel they have no control over their environment. In addition, Clare Cooper Marcus in Housing as if people mattered (1986) and People Places (1997) has gathered together a whole range of information from the USA and Europe detailing what went wrong in and around high density social housing areas. Her books suggest approaches and solutions which might lead to more user-friendly site designs if applied by planners, designers, managers and developers.

Through applying the ideas presented by these researchers and also here in these web pages there is more likelihood of creating the types of environmental settings which support the majority of people's daily needs, rather than create difficulties and barriers for human activity in the way so many past designs have done.

Identifying some of the environmental features which can aid the development of a more successful human habitat in the immediate environs of the home

- settled, safe and secure living areas

It is suggested that the key to why we need to be concerned about each part of the city as a supporting habitat for human life is that it is to everybody's advantage if populations do not feel alienated from their immediate environments. Settled areas of cities are normally identified as having less turnover of population - a feature often observed in those areas of a city which have a reputation for being safer and more secure. Such areas normally also show less evidence of vandalism and the people who live there often exhibit more pride in their immediate environment. In addition, the cost to the city of looking after such settled areas is likely to be lower in the long term, because of the lower maintenance requirements.


- understanding the way that the mind reacts to places can help in the decision-making about how to design environmental settings near the home

A common characteristic identified by psychologists is that humans need a continual supply of information about their environment to survive and thrive. However, as the environmental psychologists S. and R. Kaplan (1982) pointed out in their book, Humanscape - environments for people, information alone is not enough for people to be satisfied with the place where they live. People also have to care about the place they call home, if they are going to make the effort to gather the information that is presented to them through the environment.

It has been shown that in fact people are strongly motivated, not only to use information, but actively to seek it and to seek reasons to use it - in other words they get pleasure from something that is interesting to them. This drive to know more is balanced by a need to control the quantity of information absorbed. As Kaplan (1982) said, "people crave new information and are at the same time repelled from information too far from what they can comprehend and deal with". In the Overvecht case study the social surveys undertaken in recent years back this up - again and again local inhabitants say how boring, uninteresting, featureless and lacking in things to do and places to go to the areas around and near their homes are, despite the high number of trees planted within this site. Here the failure has been to make place - the trees - just decoration, and in the form they were planted and managed, they have done little to enhance nature.


- recognising the need to feel in control of the home environment and its immediate surroundings

To feel at ease in any environment, particularly near the home, people need to understand and make sense of their surroundings - they need to feel in control of these spaces and to anticipate what is likely to happen there, to know what is acceptable.

In contrast, spaces further from the home are those needing a special reason to visit - they are 'somewhere different' to go to. They are where those using such a 'place' have the opportunity to make decisions about doing different things - going to different places - even deciding to go to places that are a bit 'scary' or to avoid them. It is these other places near the home which provide somewhere that the environmental psychologists would say people can experience the excitement of learning about the relatively new - the different.


- understanding why people want something interesting to see around their home

Environmental psychologists have shown us that we are stimulated by being fascinated or interested. In the context of dense housing areas this fascination can be provided by something as apparently simple as the ever changing scene from the home or garden, or within nearby parks and countryside. Seasonal changes: the colour of plants, the presence of birds, animals and insects, as well as the view of other known and unknown people passing by, and of people involved in a play/sport activity, can all provide a never ending interest in the home environment. We can get bored if there is nothing new in a situation. In relation to housing areas this can mean that residents do not use the spaces provided and in turn means that those spaces are relatively empty and so become perceived as unsafe to use. These observations are supported in the Overvecht case study by looking at the inhabitants' list of the Key Issues in relation to greenspaces - they find the local parks and larger open spaces very uninteresting places to visit and they are often fearful of using them and the external spaces adjacent to their homes. Local inhabitants feel that they have no control over who is in these spaces.

It has been suggested by psychologists that people have an in-built desire for involvement with their environment and that much motivation and emotion is information-based; perhaps this is one of the reasons why people are so aware of their home environment and so fascinated by it.

Basic human needs

Various psychologists, including Maslow, have identified the essentials of a satisfactory human life:

  • the first essential is that physiological needs are met - that we are able to assuage hunger and thirst
  • we also need to feel secure and have a place to shelter, and be able to keep ourselves warm
  • we need to feel that we belong to a group or society
  • we must be free to express our individual identity in some way
  • finally, that we live in an environment which allows us to experience a sense of self- fulfilment.


Creating environments which support human needs

In considering how to regenerate housing areas in Europe, for the most part we can take it that the first two basic needs (food and shelter) are being taken care of by governmental systems. However, the way that the external environment operates and is perceived and understood by the local inhabitants is an essential factor in creating the settings which meet the other basic needs listed above.


To help us work out what to do to change the external environment of a housing area we need to ask questions such as:

What will it be like to:

  • take the children for a walk
  • go to the bus stop
  • take a cycle ride, go to the shops
  • go to school
  • park the car
  • go to the park
  • stroll on the sports ground
  • watch the football game
  • fish in the stream, etc.

In redesigning or designing a new housing area we need to aim to make the outside spaces that people use on a daily basis fit for habitation, just as for the indoor accommodation. Equally important is to make the external areas liveable spaces, so that the local inhabitants feel that they belong to them. In developing ideas it is also important to recognise that the factors which affect habitability are often governed by what happens outside the site and to develop strategies for dealing with these issues:

  • road noise
  • polluted water
  • polluted air.

These factors are only really affected by planning actions which deal with areas much larger than an individual district - they need to be tackled through the city's environmental policies. Despite this, constructive and imaginative thinking at the local level can do much to limit the impact of these externally created problems - that is, once the problems are themselves recognised.

Here we deal with the question of liveability, an issue based in the realm of psychology. People's reaction to any given 'place' is not just about a so called 'real world' as constructed by the designers, but is also about how the individuals and groups perceive, understand and give meaning to those places; it is about the environmental attributes and qualities of those places, as well as the actions of others involved in using those spaces.


Many factors, not only the physical environment, influence people's perception of the quality of life in their area of the city

Research throughout the 1980s and 1990s indicated that the following factors strongly influence how people perceive the quality of their lives (table is derived from Findlay et al, 1982):

  • Violent crime Most significant factor
  • Non-violent crime
  • Health provision
  • Pollution
  • Cost of living
  • Shopping facilities
  • Scenic quality
  • Cost of owner occupation
  • Education facilities
  • Employment prospects
  • Wage levels
  • Unemployment
  • Climate
  • Sports facilities
  • Travel to work time
  • Leisure facilities Less significant
  • Quality of social housing
  • Access to social housing
  • Cost of privately rented accommodation Least significant

More recent research work on liveability has been undertaken by the UK Government and is available on the website.

External areas

High density housing

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

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

Cooper Marcus, C. and Sarkissian, W. (1986) Housing as if people mattered

Cooper Marcus, C. and Francis, C. (eds.) (1997) People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Spaces, John Wiley, New York.

Findlay, A. et al. (1989) Whose quality of life, The Planner, 75, no.15.

Kaplan, S. (1982) Attention and fascination: the search for cognitive clarity, In Humanscape: Environments for People (eds. S. and R. Kaplan), Ulrich's Books, Ann Arbor, Miichigan.

Maslow, A.H. (1967) A theory of metamotivation: the biological rooting of the value-life, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 7, 93-1127.

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.
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
Web pages by
Map21 Ltd

Latest update 13 Dec 2003