House building is not about making ‘space’, it’s about creating ‘place’

A ‘sense of community’ is what we get when the environment we’re in, or that we live in, feels comfortable to us and consistent with how we see ourselves and with our personality – the identity of the place fits with our notion of our own identity. Developments in which people love both the physical surroundings and feel a strong community network, are places in which people want to live. To build social housing that has longevity, we should build with ‘place identity’, ‘a sense of community’ and ‘place attachments’ in mind.

As human beings we cannot get away from the fact that we exist in a physical context. Our interactions between the outside world and ourselves are what shape us. How we interact with and feel in an environment has an impact on our behaviours towards a place, which influences whether or not we participate in local planning or revitalisation efforts. Considering how people interact with an environment, and considering the type of ‘place’ a new environment (such as new housing) will create is therefore a critical part of the planning process.

Yi-Fu Tuan, a key figure in human geography who focuses on common phenomena such as the experience of ‘home’, examines in his work the ways in which people attach meaning to a place. He argues that what starts as an undefined ‘space’ evolves into a ’place’ as people come to know them better and endow them with value. These places acquire deep meaning through the ‘steady accretion of sentiment and experience’ (Tuan 1974).

Recent examples of affordable housing have raised the game, by creating ‘places’ rather than ‘spaces’. Take ‘The Echoes’ in Thurrock Borough Council, Essex as an example. This new development clearly shows ‘place identity’ – a term that refers to the dimension of the self that develops in relation to the physical environment it is a dynamic phenomenon that grows and transforms through the lived experience’ (Proshany, 1979). The Echoes does this by creating the conditions for a robust community rather than hindering them. Homes face out onto a communal courtyard, there is a community house that provides ample space for those living in the development and the wider community, and the balconies create a thoughtful connection with the building and the river Thames.

People’s identity and values are informed by the places that they deem significant. And it follows that people’s bond with such places will inform their engagement with them – whether it be to pick up trash in the street or simply to stay in that place.

As Kevin McCloud, says in a recent interview with the New Statesman, ‘you can’t create a community, but you can create a place in which you hope a community will flourish’.

At Keeble Brown, we understand the importance of placemaking. We specialise in community engagement, making sure that developments are well received by the communities in which they are built.

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