Designing Social Housing Renewal

By Mark Sheppard. 

Figure 1: Designing Social Housing Renewal
DLA is currently assisting both Victorian and NSW governments with the renewal of a number of social housing estates. We have developed a series of urban design principles to guide the master planning of social housing precincts to supplement general urban design principles for urban renewal (such as responsiveness to the context, placemaking, permeability, legibility, mixed-use, public realm quality, amenity and so on) and social planning principles associated with housing estate renewal (such as social : private housing mix).

Our best practice urban design principles for social housing estate renewal fall into three categories: normalise, enhance and integrate.

Normalise

Historically, public housing has been concentrated in estates which stand out from ‘conventional’ urban fabric by virtue of their design. In many cases, public housing estates have been used as ‘guinea pigs’ for experimental architectural ideas which have been failures. This exacerbates the stigma associated with such estates, and deters non-residents from visiting or passing through them, further reinforcing their social isolation.

Several of the unconventional design ideas adopted in public housing estates have resulted in uninviting and unsafe environments. For example:
  • The circulation network within many public housing estates is impermeable and illegible. This deters through-movement, which reduces passive surveillance and, consequently, personal security, as well as social integration.
  • The open spaces within public housing estates are often ill-defined, poorly surveilled, sometimes in secluded locations that are disconnected from main movement routes, and poorly looked after, discouraging their use and lessening their safety.
  • The base of public housing buildings often lack activation, passive surveillance and a sense of address, reducing the appeal and safety of the surroundings.
  • The external design of public housing towers often has a bulky form, repetitive façade treatments and poor quality materials, resulting in unattractive buildings which contribute to the stigma of the estate.
In order to tackle these problems, new buildings, streets and open spaces must be indistinguishable from ‘conventional’ urban streets, public open spaces and buildings. They must be ‘sector blind’. This leads to the following principles:
  • Normal streets—create a permeable and legible network of conventional local streets, clearly defined by building frontages and containing footpaths, street trees and kerbside car parking.
  • Normal parks—create local open spaces that lie along local streets, are clearly defined and addressed by building frontages and well landscaped and furnished.
  • Normal buildings—design buildings to address the public realm (particularly at ground level) and to look the same irrespective of whether they contain social, affordable or private housing.
Enhance

The amenity of public housing estates is often poor. In many cases the housing itself is in poor condition, not suited to contemporary household formations and does not meet modern standards of amenity. In addition, the quality of public open space, community facilities and streetscapes is often poor.

This not only reduces the amenity of the estate for residents, but also exacerbates its stigma.

This leads to the following principles:

  • Better quality housing—build new, fit-for-purpose homes.
  • Better quality parks—upgrade or create new, high quality public open spaces.
  • Better quality streets—upgrade existing streetscapes and ensure new streets have high quality design.
  • Better quality facilities—upgrade or create new shops and community facilities.
Integrate

Public housing estates are often barriers to through movement, either because of a lack of routes through the estate, or because those routes are indirect, illegible, uninviting or unsafe.

The renewal of a social housing estate can enable the creation of direct through routes to better integrate it with the surrounding urban fabric. This will encourage through movement, bringing passive surveillance and social integration. This leads to the following principle:
  • Through routes—create thoroughfares through the estate that provide direct routes to key destinations
Public housing estates often contain shops, open spaces and other communal facilities ‘buried’ within the estate, where they are only used by residents from the estate. This reinforces their separation from the surrounding community.

The renewal of a social housing estate can enable the creation of new community facilities located where they may be used by people from outside the estate, to contribute to integration. This leads to the following principle:
  • Shared facilities—locate shops, parks and community facilities at the edge of the estate
In order to deconcentrate social housing, it needs to be physically mixed with private housing. How finely social and private housing are mixed is a question of policy and market economics. However, the layout of a renewal area can facilitate mixing by enabling a wide range of different mixing scenarios.

‘Perimeter blocks’, which comprise buildings aligned along street edges around the edge of the block, provide for public and private housing to be mixed in a number of different ways. For example, they enable multiple entries to the same building, abutting buildings in the same block whose entries face different streets, and private and social housing buildings facing each other across a street.

Perimeter blocks also ensure a well-defined and passively-surveilled public realm, and create privacy for private and communal open space in the middle of the block. This leads to the following principle:
  • Perimeter blocks—arrange buildings along street edges around the edge of each block
Summary

In summary, best practice urban design in relation to the renewal of social housing estates can be distilled to the following design principles:
  • Normal streets—create a permeable and legible network of conventional local streets, clearly defined by building frontages and containing footpaths, street trees and kerbside car parking.
  • Normal parks—create local open spaces that lie along local streets, are clearly defined and addressed by building frontages and well landscaped and furnished.
  • Normal buildings—design buildings to address the public realm (particularly at ground level) and to look the same irrespective of whether they contain social, affordable or private housing.
  • Better quality housing—build new, fit-for-purpose homes.
  • Better quality parks—upgrade or create new, high quality public open spaces
  • Better quality streets—upgrade existing streetscapes and ensure new streets have high quality design
  • Better quality facilities—upgrade or create new shops and community facilities.
  • Through routes—create thoroughfares through the estate that provide direct routes to key destinations.
  • Shared facilities—locate shops, parks and community facilities at the edge of the estate.
  • Perimeter blocks—arrange buildings along street edges around the edge of each block.

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