“Grand Designs” – for small communities.

Like thousands of others, I’m an avid watcher of the UK top rating program, ‘Grand Designs.’ The projects inspire such a passionate drive for the progress of new and inventive property development, there’s a distinct feeling each individual designer has a ‘higher’ sense of purpose in their creation.

Rarely – if ever – is it focused on investment potential or capital appreciation.  Rental returns, “property clocks” and speculative bubbles are thankfully never mentioned. Instead, each home is to be a ‘haven of shelter’ for the occupants, and the common denominator in the features valued most, should form the basis of a detailed study for developers and town planners, employed with creating the modern landscape of each State Capital’s 2030 expansion plan.

The series has taken us on an adventurous journey, visiting and re-visiting the projects to test their viability and sustainability for the purpose of each individual design.  The commonalities that form the needs of each participant involved in the program are relatively simple.  They broadly focus on developing a ‘space’ where family and guests can enjoy a sense of community with their surrounds, with great emphasis placed on designing an environmentally sustainable habitat.

Although money facilitates the design, profiting from the development is not the end focus.  For the families involved, the concentration remains firmly on lifestyle.

No one can deny that financial independence is a fundamental requirement in how we perceive an individual’s level of ‘well being’ – but even without a change in financial status, an upgrade in living standards provided primarily through wise and well thought out development, is enough to bring lasting happiness to the occupants involved regardless of personal income. Something the series proves with its weekly case studies.

It’s a somewhat obvious assumption – however it’s one thats bore a need to be proven in various housing studies across the globe.  For example,  in the mid 1990’s, the U.S department of Housing and Urban development in Boston, commissioned a 10 year research project entitled ‘Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing’ (MTO) The social experiment was designed to analyse how a change in living standards would affect people in poverty outside of any change in status to their financial circumstance.

You could argue that results emanating from any improvement in living standards would be easy to predict.   However, as with all Government departments, money spent on “Captain Obvious” studies, tend to burn a hole through common sense.  This aside, the survey produced some interesting results which should form a motivation for ‘social policy’ reforms across our geographical borders.

The survey addressed the question, if living in a “poor” neighbourhood would have a flow on effect in education standards, crime statistics, well being, and general lower levels of achievement. To do this, public housing residents were split into three groups with the help of a random ‘lottery’.

Each group received a set of ‘vouchers.’ One set enabled residents to subsidize the yield they paid enabling an ‘upgrade’ into private rental accommodation in an area where ‘poverty’ was defined as being less than 10 per cent.  A second group received vouchers entitling them to move ‘wherever they wanted.’  And the third group unfortunately had to stay put.

Despite the move, the financial status of each group remained predominately the same.  Salaries didn’t increase and jobs weren’t changed.  However, the 15 year study proved without doubt – those who were entitled to ‘upgrade’ their environment, experienced a substantial reduction in obesity, diabetes, mental illness, bullying, harassment, and an overall general improvement in their family’s well being.

According to the findings, the subsequent ‘happiness’ effect a change of lifestyle had on the recipients of the vouchers, was equal to a $13,000 a year salary increase – and all that had altered to produce this effect, was the provision of better housing within a well facilitated, established community.

In case you’re reading this and making the assumption that the above ‘happiness effect’ can only be achieved by calling on more tax payer dollars, the next experiment will hopefully put this concern to rest because Kevin McCloud, the British presenter of Grand Designs, conducted his own experiment into the effects of our living environment. Whether he did it consciously or not, he took the two commonalities I outlined above, and wove them into a project called the ‘Big Town Plan.’

The concept involved a 42 house community development, primarily for families confined to ‘social housing.’ He wanted to prove that through intelligent design, a housing estate could be established to enable an active community environment, as well as substantially lowering the environmental footprint and subsequent energy costs of each home. In doing so, he set about to prove the development would cost no more than any other – but the effect would advantage the families and their children in such a way, it would enable the opportunity to get a ‘leg’ up – if only in wellbeing, rather than wealth.

The project picked social housing residents who felt their current accommodation was having a compounding effect on their ability to provide a good foundation in which their children could ‘flourish.’ The atmosphere created by the current council housing estate in which they resided, isolated a ‘disadvantaged’ section of society in such a way, it resulted in a compounding, ‘depressive’ and visionless environment, that expressed itself in higher rates of violence and crime.

There was no higher ‘purpose’ in the development to foster a sense of community which would enable the residents to join together and improve their immediate surrounds.  It was developed with cost as the sole dictator and as a consequence, children were not encouraged to venture outside to play, and neighbours did not socialise.

Kevin’s design would put the same emphasis on cost but couple it with ‘purpose’ driven design. The houses were to be built in a triangular shape around a mini park and community garden.  This would enable residents to socialise whilst at the same time, provide a safe area for children play which was visible from their parent’s homes.

The houses are designed with features to diminish their carbon footprint and keep energy bills low. Natural light was important and although there were faults along the way, the unique design of each property maximised a sense of ‘space and tranquillity’ which had one couple describing the feeling akin to being in a holiday home in “sunny Spain.”

When Kevin returned to his ‘experiment’ a year down the line, he found the community flourishing.  Children were happily playing, neighbours were socialising – there was no isolation, and each family knew the other.

Households previously ‘cut off’ through fear of their environment, were experiencing an atmosphere in which their children could benefit. Pride and vision had been returned on a personal level, and the effect fed into individual aspiration.

It had nothing to do with the redistribution of wealth, but everything to do with providing an atmosphere in which individuals can endeavour to improve.  The houses weathered well over the period monitored – with residents expressing how they enjoyed the feeling of ‘coming home’.  All in all it was a resounding success.

Kevin may not have provided the grandeur of individual designs featured on his program, but he had at least provided the essential qualities all these homes had in common – principally an atmosphere to enhance the social and physical connection to the surrounding environment.

It was therefore with interest I watched Four Corners last week, which focused on the community of Claymore – situated roughly 54 km south west of Sydney.

The housing estate featured was designed and funded by the Housing Commission of New South Wales and initially built, to provide housing for ‘blue collar’ factory workers.  When employment didn’t follow, the suburb became a social housing estate and the people living there were thrown together from a range of backgrounds – low income workers, discharges from psychiatric hospitals, single parents, Samoan refugees, and so forth.  Currently, the suburb has a median age of 20 and median income – when last measured – of just $237 per week.

The project was a social disaster.  The support services desperately needed for the predominant demographic never followed.  Employment opportunities were scarce to nonexistent.  The community was isolated in terms of facilities and essential infrastructure. Public transport was lacking, and the design of the estate had no clear community objective.

Throughout the years various volunteer groups and educators have made inroads in their attempts to create a social purpose within the estate – but as the producers of Four Corners witnessed – there is a huge amount of work yet to be done.

If we’re to take the studies above in any seriousness, the high rates of domestic violence, crime, teen pregnancy and so forth, are not necessarily the fault of the social mix, but the result of isolating a group of people in a poorly designed and facilitated suburb.  Something which is a feature of many newly created ‘fringe’ suburbs which are popping up in the state of Victoria, prior to the development of any essential infrastructure such as public transport, schools, parks, medical facilities, and so forth.

Some of these fridge locations have attracted substantial population growth in recent years because the house and land packages offered are the answer to affordable accommodation for many of the residents. However, a majority suffer from higher rates of crime and social issues than the inner suburban towns, which I theorise to be principally related to failings in their initial design.

It is a far more cost effective venture to provide suitable well facilitated suburbs than it is to provide a patchwork of support organisations to service long term welfare commitments. But, in order to do so, town planners and government heavyweights, must move from behind their desks and involve, listen, and most importantly adhere to, the voices of local community.

Perhaps the answer lay in a plan, compiling of a vision similar to the UK’s ‘The Big Society.’ A policy reform, which aims to place more power into community hands and empower problem solving from ‘the ground up,’ rather than the top down.  Whatever the answer, we’d be a poorer society if we didn’t all agree – there must be a better way.

Catherine Cashmore

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