Combating loneliness through good neighbourhood design

Loneliness is a social issue that affects millions of people in the UK. The late MP Jo Cox, who established the Loneliness Commission, said ‘Young or old, loneliness does not discriminate’.

While loneliness is a particular problem for the elderly, fragmented and geographically dispersed families mean that loneliness afflicts people of all ages who have little in the way of a local support network. The number of middle-aged people living alone in the UK has grown by around 50% in the last twenty years. Nearly 2.5million 45-64 year-olds were living alone in 2017 according to the Office for National Statistics, and over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone.

Loneliness has been found to increase the chance of mortality by 26 percent, (Holt-Lunstad, 2015) and to be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (www.campaigntoendloneliness.org).

At Village Makers, we believe that a significant route to combating loneliness is through the design of the built environment. Director Bob Tomlinson says, “We shouldn’t just be building houses, we should be creating communities that encourage interaction. Research shows that small, simple and inexpensive interventions to improve the physical environment of neighbourhoods and way people interact can make huge differences and build resilience to loneliness.”

We build developments that have at their heart quality of life. Our properties are sustainable and energy efficient, a great deal of thought goes into the design and architecture, but the most fundamental aspect to our work is what we call ‘mindful placemaking’.

Communal, people-centric space is what makes the difference, space that encourages human connection, communication, neighbourliness, conviviality and a feeling of belonging. But paying lip service to the concept, and planners’ guidelines, by factoring in a patch of communal grass to a development of rows of straight-liney houses just doesn’t work.

Our development, The Wintles in Shropshire, now twelve years old, is a blueprint for how design can play a significant role in the quest for neighbourly neighbourhoods. The 40 houses are linked by winding paths, and arranged in clusters around shared green space, car ports located behind the houses. Residents meet each other naturally simply by leaving the house and children can roam the development safely.

All our properties have an open porch, a space that’s neither inside nor outside, but is covered and protected. These spaces encourage interaction between neighbours. It’s a place to chat without the need to go through the formality of inviting somebody in. Some residents will have a chair or two in the space, meeting the innate desire to be outside but protected, and encouraging further interaction with passing neighbours, an informal approach to interacting, and community behaviour.

The structure of many of our designs are based on Christopher Alexander’s ‘A Pattern Language’ which cites the open porch as one of the vital design ‘patterns’.

We believe that communal space in a development is crucial to encouraging human connection. At The Wintles there is a total of 17 acres of land. There are small village greens, larger spaces for get-togethers, woodland, allotments, and hillside space that has been creatively used by the residents.

Space close to the houses has been used for weddings, barbecues, paella parties and Christmas gatherings. Allotments were provided for all residents, but production has expanded around this organised space into chicken and pig rearing, bee hives, vines, honey and cider production. Everyone works together, pursuing their own particular interests, but working together, and helping each other out in a common aim.

The key to creating a good community is working out what makes an existing place works and translating it into a new place and this is what we’re doing in our current project Oakley Orchards. We have formed a joint venture with Pete Thompson, a local landowner and farmer.

Purchasers will be able to choose their plot and their house type, choose from a range of additional features such as sunspace, balcony or bay window, choose the internal layout, and choose the interior specification.

Like The Wintles, Oakley Orchards has been designed to positively encourage neighbourliness and community. The arrangement of the plots around greens planted with fruit trees flies in the face of the regimented arrangement of many developments. Each house is oriented differently on pedestrian pathways, and visitors will struggle to find a straight line, apart from the walls of the houses themselves.

Pete Thompson, MD of Thompsons Farm says, “Every aspect of the design – from the open spaces, to the layout of the pathways and the location and orientation of the houses – is designed to encourage people to meet and talk to each other. There are also numerous green spaces, a communal herb garden and allotments, and a communal green to encourage community events. A forest school and village hall will be created as part of the development.”

Oakley Orchards is very much part of the village of Great Oakley with its active and friendly community, school, church, playing field, shop and community run pub, The Maybush.

Several publications and websites have written about how good design can help combat loneliness:

 

You can let us know what you think on our Facebook page. Loneliness is a problem that isn’t going away, and we feel strongly that developers and housebuilders should be taking steps to ensure that people are less isolated in their homes.

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