Places for People - Residential areas

© Anne Beer, 2003

Outdoor places in residential areas

Corridors of movement
Pedestrian routes
It is only possible to predict to a limited extent how pedestrians will use a site. This means that the site planning team needs to be aware that money must be reserved to add paths as a second stage of the design. Additional paths are needed where desire lines develop and more major structural changes may be necessary to alter the layout of the site so as to discourage the unacceptable use of short cuts through private gardens. It is human nature to always walk along what is perceived as the shortest route between two points. People will ignore even beautifully designed paths if they can see that they do not take the shortest route.

Any environmental designer will know that paths going in straight lines can be very dull and the way round this conflict between desire lines and aesthetics requires a high level of design skill. Where advisable, taller plants and strategically positioned walls and fences can all be used to divert the user onto a more interesting route, without the user becoming aware that the route is slightly longer. Pedestrian routes need frequent sitting spaces adjacent or very close to the hard surface. This gives mothers out walking with young children, old people and those going to and from the shops somewhere to stop, as well as making the whole pedestrian system more interesting to use.

The designer should aim to make the system more interesting for the pedestrian user by incorporating different widths of path. Well positioned small spaces along the route can act as resting places and be designed to encourage people to linger and, therefore, to get to know each other. Different plant material along different parts of the route can help, as can the designing of local landmarks to give a sense of location. However, as with all outdoor spaces it is necessary for the designer to think their way along the system so that the problem areas in which the user might feel unsafe can be identified and the design modified accordingly.

Gradients on footpaths are important and whenever possible should not exceed 1:12, except over very short distances. To allow for the use of prams and wheelchairs, the kerbs at junctions of roads and footpaths should be dropped to road level. Steps can be interesting design features in estates, but care should be taken to ensure that less mobile people have alternative routes.

Traffic calming - making roads safer
Carmen Hass-Klau (1993) in her book The Pedestrian and City Traffic has examined the history of planning for traffic through contrasting experiences in the UK with those in Germany. She investigates why in Germany pedestrianisation seems to have been more readily accepted, why they have invested so much more heavily in public transport systems and particularly why they have been so much more successful in introducing traffic calming measures to restrict the damage that the car can do to the quality of life in residential areas. For British urban designers and traffic engineers there is much to be learnt from this comparative study and the author has also included some information on developments in the USA to add further insight into this issue.

Concern for the safety of pedestrians in urban areas is not new. For instance, Unwin and Parker, who designed the first Garden Cities in Britain early this century, incorporated a high level of concern for the pedestrian in their layouts. The New Towns too incorporated many ideas intended to reduce the adverse impact of traffic. However, in most cases the problems associated with the growth in the volume of traffic were not understood and the approach of building ever larger highways persists in holding sway in Britain, despite evidence from the USA and Germany that it rarely solves the problems.

Hass-Klau shows how the different historical and political development of city planning in Britain and Germany has been responsible to a large extent for the different approaches to traffic planning. This book does not deal directly with people's perceptions of the problems caused by traffic in towns and its impact on the quality of their lives, but this is and will remain a vital research area for those involved in environmental psychology.

Reducing Commuting
The environmental problems posed by transport in relation to the sustainability of urban areas are now well recognised - they are not dealt with here, as their solution is a political rather than site planning decision.

The idea that we shall all suddenly take to public transport is probably a dream - people love the feeling of independence that goes with having their own means of transport. Much better, therefore, to look at what would reduce the number of trips we each make as we commute about the countryside and between and within cities. Housing areas and their distance from where we need to be at given times are the major cause of traffic - what can we do to reduce this traffic? Housing mainly generates vehicular traffic through the need:

  • to commute to work and school
  • to buy food
  • to purchase other goods to support the quality of life
  • for amusement/recreation

We need to examine these movements if traffic is to be reduced. Yes, we can put in public transport but all the studies show that people will only walk to a transport stop if it is within 6 minutes - 400m of their homes (Zurich - use of trams study, 1980s) and such a density of stops makes running the public transport system expensive, except in high density situations. That most people do not want to spend their whole lives in high density housing is suggested by the way in which the suburban built form has crept across the countryside of Europe, as each country has in turn become more affluent.

Work journeys
Those involved in site planning should bear in mind the likely impact on housing areas of modern electronic technology. This makes it possible for an individual to work for a distant employer from home. One of the main disincentives to working from home is the individual's loss of contact with colleagues; it should be considered whether community-based work centres could not be built with each housing cluster. Local people could then rent a work space for a part of every week - paid for out of the money they previously spent on commuting to work.
Few of the new generation of factories and warehouses need many people to run them and the old style factories decrease in number every year. It is questionable quite how long into the future offices and other service industries will continue to be labour intensive.

In such circumstances the quality of the housing environment will become even more critical, as people cease to be commuters in the way that we now understand it. Housing areas will no longer be dormitories but the places where we spend our lives.

School journeys
If we are serious about reducing the commute to school, then potentially electronics could have a very major impact on this type of commuting too. Using the present experiences in countries such as Finland, where many children are taught in small-scale remote centres (because of the difficulties of travelling the long distances between settlements), we can envisage the development of small-scale local learning centres within each housing area (possibly in conjunction with the work centres mentioned above), which are linked electronically to major virtual campuses.

Shopping journeys
Much is already being talked about the possibilities inherent in the way the Internet works for organising the delivery of basic food items directly to the home. Dealing with bulk foods in this way and then encouraging 'shopping as a recreation' for non basic items might well be the way of minimising the shopping commute.

Recreational journeys
A substantial proportion of journeys are now for recreational purposes - in part because the way we work means that our friendship network is very widespread - we know people all over the city and region and like to meet them in our leisure time. Our friendship networks could well be expected to readjust as we tend to work more and more within our home territories.

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 of all ages

Links and References

Books and papers

Hass-Klau, C. (1993) The Pedestrian and City Traffic, John Wiley & Sons.

Unwin and Parker

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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