A change of scene from the Arts Tower – to the very grand surroundings of Westminster! I was recently invited to the House of Lords to contribute to an Evidence Session for the Design Commission’s Inquiry into the Built Environment and Behaviour. The Design Commission is an arms-length research forum to the All Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation group, chaired by Baroness Whitaker. It will make recommendations based on this and three other evidence sessions. Key experts on the panel included Sarah Wigglesworth, Daisy Froud and Dr Richard Simmons, Chief Executive of CABE (2004-2011).
We were asked to answer a big question about what factors of the built environment have a positive impact on residents’ behaviour. I was able to call on the national research CityForm project that I did with colleagues in Oxford, Sheffield, Leicester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. This research – based on a large-scale questionnaire completed by over 4,300 participants in these UK cities – showed how neighbourhood management and maintenance is an important contributor to residents’ feelings of safety. Vandalism, litter, poor lighting and overgrown vegetation can all deter residents from using such spaces, and this was more likely to occur in city centres than in the suburbs. We also did focus groups with residents from 9 neighbourhoods in these cities to ask residents more in-depth questions. Maintenance and management came up as important issues, particularly the condition of physical infrastructure (e.g. footpaths, playgrounds), the cleanliness of the place (e.g. litter, graffiti) and who looks after it.
I did my PhD research alongside this research, in Oxford and Sheffield, which showed that those residents who described their neighbourhoods as good quality were more likely to socially interact with neighbours, develop social networks, feel safe in the neighbourhood, and have a sense of attachment to where they lived.
When I looked at the individual aspects of quality, it was impossible to unpick the most or least significant – as individuals, we each have our own definition of quality. The findings did suggest that attractiveness and maintenance of the built environment contribute to many people’s definition of quality, which supports the idea that people’s perceptions of place are dependent on how that place is managed or maintained.
This chimed with points made by fellow invitees, Prof. Catherine Ward Thompson from Edinburgh University and Elanor Warwick, Head of Strategic Research at Affinity Sutton Housing Association. Exactly what we mean by attractiveness and quality are subjective issues and difficult to pin down – indeed, should we be trying to measure these aspects so specifically in the first place? Elanor pointed out that there are shared expectations that we all hold about quality of place – for example, they must be places in which we feel safe. Design guidance often refers to good quality places, but it is not always clear how that gets implemented in practice by professionals. I focus my research on place-keeping because somehow, between concept design stage and practical implementation, things get lost in translation. The notion that professionals know best is also challenged when places are not designed with the end-user in mind. Today at the House of Lords was a useful reminder of why the place-keeping research is so important – to help us understand how we can design places of high quality for the very long-term future.