My previous post, ‘Compact Cities: The Battle Against the Car’, focused on how the urban form can help create cities of short distances, breaking down the reliance on the private automobile, in hope that one day, cities can function without reliance on the car. Focusing on a somewhat macro-level, compact cities raise questions over quality of life in particular. This post however, aims to address these concerns at the micro-level of the neighbourhood and/or community.
Clarence Perry, an American planner and sociologist, was perhaps the first to develop the practice of ‘neighbourhood design’ with his famous Neighbourhood Unit of the 1920s. Perry’s ideas and concepts would go onto inform the New Urbanism movement, through combining neo-traditional neighbourhoods with traditional neighbourhood development. Meanwhile, in Europe, Leon Krier helped raise interest in the idea and concept of urban quarters, which would find its feet not until the 1990s, with the establishment of the Urban Villages Forum (Aldous 1992; Biddulph 2000).
With regards to neighbourhood design, I would argue that it is crucial for neighbourhoods to function as holistically as possible, with regards to social, environmental, and economic processes. Design plays a critical role in preventing the perpetuation of profit-driven, mono-functional housing developments, which mascaraed as ‘neighbourhoods’. Urban design must play the role of the integrator, patching multi-functional and socially relevant neighbourhoods into the wider urban fabric.
Blowers (1973) identified five types of neighbourhood: arbitrary neighbourhoods, which are based on a common territory, with spatial proximity being the only common feature; ecological and ethnological neighbourhoods, where a common environment and identity is shared; homogeneous neighbourhoods, inhabited by particular socio-economic or ethnic groups; functional neighbourhoods, which focus on an somewhat scientific, geographical mapping of service provision; and community neighbourhoods, in which a ‘close-knit, socially homogenous group engages in primary contacts’ (Carmona et al 2010).
New Urbanists have been criticised for ‘overreaching themselves’ (see Brain 2005), where advocates of neighbourhood planning make over-ambitious claims that particular design strategies will inexorably create strong communities. According to Talen (2000:179), neighbourhood planners/designers should ‘steer away’ from the term community in connection with physical design, and instead focus on creating environments that stimulate, for example, resident interaction. Gans (1961) however, claims that whilst propinquity may spark social relationships, it is social homogeneity that physical friendships require. I would argue that this claim is less relevant today, particularly in the UK, which has since become a highly multi-cultural society. In terms of socio-economic status however, perhaps this claim is still relevant.
Carmona et al (2003:143) claims four central issues regarding neighbourhood design concepts: size; boundaries; social relevance; and mixed communities.
There has been appreciable debate regarding the ideal neighbourhood size. Usually expressed in terms of area – limited to what is considered comfortable walking distance, measured in either distance or time – or in terms of population – how many people are required to make services economically viable and financially sustainable. Jane Jacobs (1961) meanwhile, criticised trying to establish a strict threshold population of say, 10,000 people, because it would not function correctly in a large city, although perhaps in a small town. Jacobs argued only a population of 100,000 people or more would be large enough to be ‘politically significant’.
There has been considerable debate over whether or not neighbourhoods need strictly demarcated boundaries or not. Some believe that boundaries create distinct territory, which in turn enhances functional and social interaction (Carmona et al 2003). Meanwhile, Jacobs (1961) contest this idea, writing that the most functional and social neighbourhoods actually lacked strict boundaries, and instead, overlapped and interweaved with their surrounding environments. Lynch (1981:401) writes from a similar position: ‘… any good city has a continuous fabric, rather than a cellular one’.
The concept of mixed communities, and enhancing the social mix, are a prevalent topic of discussion with regards to neighbourhood planning, and urban design. Krier (1990) argued that zoning resulted in a ‘mechanical segregation of urban functions rather than their organic integration’ (quoted in Carmona et al 2003:145). Krier wanted to see the reconstruction of the European city as a system of mixed-use urban quarters, each supporting one another, rather than mono-functional zones. Both the Centre for New Urbanism, and the Urban Villages Forum advocate the need for a variety of house prices and tenures, in order to create a better social mix. There are several advantages of creating mixed-use neighbourhoods; a mix of incomes gives better support to providing local, and critical, services and amenities (schools, recreation facilities, care for the elderly); opportunities for ‘life-time’ communities, where families can stay in the community even if they have to upsize; avoiding concentrations of housing of the same type; community self-help; and passive surveillance (DTLR/CABE 2001:34).
Talen (2009a:184-5) lists several ways in which design can support neighbourhood diversity, and make diversity viable. Mixing multi-family units and single-family units in the same blocks; designing links between diverse land uses and housing types; increasing density around public transport infrastructure; mixing non-standard housing designs like courtyard housing, closes and residential mews; accommodating small businesses and live/work units into the neighbourhood; and by designing streets that function as social, collective spaces rather than mono-functional ‘roads’. Jupp’s (1999) research into mixed-tenure development found mixing tenures within streets was more successful in stimulating cross-tenure social networks, than mixing neighbourhoods street-by-street or block-by-block.
Can we create communities, or is that merely wishful thinking? Urban design must focus on creating the environment for communities to grow and flourish. It must be noted that, in order for communities to flourish, one of the most important factors is time. Urban designers cannot play God and create successful communities overnight, as it could take an entire generation for a community to truly find its feet.
Aldous T (1992) Urban Villages: A Concept for Creating Mixed-Use Developments on a Sustainable Scale, Urban Villages Group, London
Biddulph, M (2000) Villages don’t make a city, Journal of Urban Design 5(1) 65-82
Brain, D (2005) From good neighbours to sustainable cities: Social science and the social agenda of New Urbanism, International Regional Science Review, 28(2), 217-238
Gans, H J (1961) Planning and social life: friendship and neighbour relations in suburban communities, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 27(2), 134-40
Jacobs, J (1961, (1984 edition) The Death and Life of Great American Cities: The Failure of Modern Town Planning, Peregrine Books, London
Talen, E (2000) The problem with community in planning, Journal of Planning Literature, 15(2), 171-183
Carmona, M., Tiesdell, S., Heath, T. and Oc, T. (2010). Public Places Urban Spaces. 2nd ed. Oxford: Elsevier, 133-147
Bo01 Malmo Sweden – http://www.msaudcolumbia.org/summer/?p=3093
Mixed-use community – https://www.lda-design.co.uk/new-eia-regulations/