Places for People - Assessing user needs

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

User needs - How do we know what users of spaces want


For detailed information on the making of safer housing areas read: Ian Colquhoun, 1999 and 2003.

Strangers both fascinate us and threaten us

In the development of site plans it is very important to consider this issue - it is such an important factor that people can feel alienated from an environment where there are too many strangers.

This is probably one of the mechanisms at work alienating many from crowded environments. It is also one of the reasons why it is important for site planners to indicate clearly who owns which piece of territory within a site. No territory should be ambiguous - it should be clear which is public and which private. In that situation people know when they have a right to challenge the stranger within their territory.

Provided that the people of an area are not strangers, it appears that people can cope with the stress of density - density itself is not the problem so much as feeling insecure and unsafe - this seems to breed aggression. The problem is that in new developments people are almost inevitably strangers.

The site planner has to attempt to compensate for this situation by doing everything possible to increase the sense of control that individuals can have over their own territory. This feeling of being in control is associated with lower levels of crime and vandalism.

High density housing and security

All over the world the social problems associated with poorer people in high-rise, high density housing are causing increasing concern.

New high density housing schemes have only been really successful where there is a tradition of community support, as in Singapore.

Unless some special system of social control exists (wardens, policing), it is only the relatively rich who can pay for the infrastructure of security and control that allows people to cope with the stressful social conditions inevitably associated with high densities.

The levels of crime and vandalism appear to drop when people experience their home environment as less hostile and develop a sense of pride in being able to identify with their community.

The most basic issue seems to be that if people feel that they have some control over what is happening in their area, they can cope with a certain level of environmental stress. If not, then there will be problems.

The redesigning of problem housing areas appears to work best when the site layout is changed so that:

  • it consists of a smaller number of dwellings accessed from each entrance point
  • there is an area of land that belongs specifically to the group or its members around the entrance
  • the residents have a clear view of who is entering
  • there is a caretaker
  • the residents are clear about which is their territory and which is the responsibility of others
  • it is very well lit at night.

Security - Encouraging a feeling of safety

The setting needs to be legible and comprehensible, so that the users, even occasional visitors, know exactly where they are within the space or spaces that it comprises.

The setting needs to provide sufficient information so that the users can predict the nature of the adjacent spaces in whichever direction they decide to move.

The users must be able to see who else is in the immediate neighbourhood and identify how those people relate to themselves, that is whether others are friendly or unfriendly.

The users must be able to determine from the setting who is responsible for the place and to whom each area of land belongs.

They must receive clear messages from the setting which enable them to distinguish who has the right to be in a particular place.

The setting also needs to indicate through its characteristics the range of activities that is appropriate in that place, within the constraints of the locally prevailing culture.

The need for wardens/rangers on site

In research undertaken on this topic, both the planners and the users talked about the importance of wardens on the natural sites, although in fact it was the site without a warden which was the most used. Although the planners considered that the sites were for everyone, women were still partially deterred from using them by a sense of unease, since the observation studies did show that women were more likely to use areas when a warden was there. The sense of unease experienced by women was researched in more detail by Harrison, Limb and Burgess, (1987) in their study of open spaces in Greenwich. The findings of their research suggest that it would be foolhardy to reduce the number of park staff, as it would have a direct impact on the number of women feeling able to use parks.

The privacy problem

A recent study by the organisation Design for Homes into Perceptions of Privacy and Density can be viewed online

Inclusion by design

Nov 2003

User needs

Settings and users


Assessing user needs




High density



Seeing spaces


Designing for Children's Play in Housing Areas

Designing for the l
ess able bodied

Links and References

Books and papers

Colquhoun, I. (1999) 20th Century British Housing , Butterworth Heinemann.

Colquhoun, I. (2003) Design Out Crime, Creating Safer Communities, Architectural Press, due out in paperback,1 December 2003.

Harrison, C., Limb, M. and Burgess, J. (1987) Nature in the city, Journal of Environmental Management, 25, 347-362.

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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 origial copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
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Map21 Ltd

Latest update 29 Nov 2003