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Green Space on Housing Developments: How good could it be?

Kate Swade

Our last blog looked at the management and governance of green amenity space on housing developments. This one considers the role of design in creating spaces that work really well, and proposes some ideas for local authorities to facilitate good developments.

Poor design of green space is bad enough when it is a relatively private affair, when it’s essentially an extension of people’s back gardens. The impact of poor design is much higher, though, when the space created is something that will impact on a whole community. We had a call recently from a community facing a new development that will create a green space which will be roughly the same size as the existing village it will be part of. This will be a space with substantial liabilities (including things like balancing ponds to deal with flood risk), as well as creating a new (geographical, if not psychological) centre of a village. It’s clearly not fair to either ask the residents of the new houses to solely foot the bill for the maintenance of a new park, or for the green space to be private and restricted to just those residents. In the current climate it is unlikely that the local authority will be keen to take on this significant new responsibility.

With the current pressure to provide large numbers of new homes, including edge of town extensions, new towns and garden cities, these kind of issues will be relevant in villages, towns and suburbs across the country. Getting them right will be the key to whether or not new developments become sustainable communities in the longer term. These kind of green spaces could be wonderful opportunities: assets where people can come together on neutral (and beautiful?) ground. Done wrong, though, they could be liabilities, causing resentments and unnecessary stress and aggravation for years to come.

Another key recommendation that came out of our work in Kirklees was that the role of the planning process here is crucial. Landscaping cannot be seen as an afterthought: it is at the heart of communities and should be seen as such. Poor design leads to ongoing management problems and long term costs, whoever has control and responsibility for the space. Local authorities should have robust design guidelines for green and communal space in new developments. These should be manageable, flexible, and adaptable spaces that can change as communities develop and their needs change from play areas for young children, to hang-out spaces for teenages, to communal food growing or outdoor meeting or exercise places for adults.

The role of developers in providing solutions to this is an interesting one. The short termism of the system in which they operate means that, with a few exceptions, they have little interest in medium and long term green space management. One thing developers could do is leave more “undone” – leave spaces for the community to grow into, and to decide what it wants to do with. The urge to fill every gap with a privet hedge is understandable from a presentation point of view (we’re done! this is finished!), but quickly becomes a long term management burden with little social, economic or environmental value. What if they were to hold back some of the money they would spend on landscaping and planting into a pot for spending at a later date?

What if (taking some inspiration from the Skip Garden in Kings Cross) everything on site was movable for the first five years, until the new residents decide what kind of space they want? Space for food growing is popular, and welcome, but the type of space that’s appropriate (private allotments? communal gardens? commercial polytunnels?) will vary depending on the age, enthusiasm and location of the community. Neighbourhoods Green showcases some great work being done on social housing estates around the country, and indeed social housing tenants are often lucky to have a landlord that has a vested interest in their health and wellbeing. For people buying or renting on private estates, there is unlikely to be an “animateur”, unless they create one themselves, or are close to an enterprising school or environmental organisation.

In some cases, setting up a new development trust or similar body will be the answer. But who should have a say, and how that say should be had? These are the questions we love to help people grapple with!

The solutions to all of these issues will be very place-specific, but we are fast developing some replicable principles and processes that could help create sustainable assets from these potential liabilities. We’d love to talk to people working on similar issues.

Can we work together to create some new commons for the 21st century on these new housing developments?

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