Our understanding of what makes a successful development is changing, so instead of focusing solely on profitability and housing targets, developers are increasingly recognising the importance of sustainability and social impact.
As real estate professionals, the question we are now asking each other and ourselves is how can we create new, vibrant communities where people really want to live?
A range of residents
Estates dominated by rows of similar-looking buildings may have seemed like a neat housing solution in the past, but there are clearly drawbacks to this approach. Homogenous developments tend to attract a narrow subsection of society, while developments with a range of different housing types encourage a more mixed demographic, bringing a multitude of social benefits.
There are some interesting construction projects currently underway that are taking this into account. Legal & General, for example, is transforming thousands of empty retail premises into city centre retirement homes. This project aims to revive struggling high streets while ensuring that older people remain connected to services and part of a community, rather than risk becoming isolated in rural or suburban locations.
Developers are increasingly bringing forward mixed-use developments, with residential as one (or the main) component, particularly on large sites. Real estate commentators are now acknowledging the social successes of Poundbury, and developments like it, offering a mixture of housing types. While Prince Charles’ town has been criticised for its anachronistic architectural style and its ‘tweed and wellies’ reputation, the design of the town is now paying social dividends. The housing mix includes apartment blocks, mews houses, and large homes, and around one third of homes are let at affordable rent, ‘pepper-potted’ throughout the town. Poundbury is now a thriving community with a diverse demographic, increasingly attracting young professionals and families as well as older people.
Mixed-use in practice
A mixed-use development needs to be carefully planned to create a flourishing community. Providing a range of housing types to attract a mixture of people is only one part of this. Blending residential and commercial premises with a full range of community facilities and recreation opportunities is critical to the development’s long-term success.
Urban & Civic’s development at Alconbury Weald is a good example of how this can work well. The development comprises a wide range of housing, a primary school, community shop, play areas, a cricket pitch and gym alongside an enterprise campus which is home to a mid-tech cluster offering flexible manufacturing, R&D and office space for businesses.
This type of mixed-use development brings multiple benefits. It helps to generate local employment, provides residents with things to do and places to go.
Lessons from village life
These ideas are not new. In fact, we can see them in villages and market towns around the country. This doesn’t mean that new developments need to be full of mock heritage buildings, but there are certainly aspects of these small local communities that can be adapted to help new, larger developments flourish.
Many villages, for example, have a town hall and a village green that provide a centre for the community, and many have community action groups that support local causes and organise events. Housing developers are seeking to incorporate successful aspects of existing communities to create strong and resilient new ones for the future, and often are required to do so by the local planning authority.
This focus on sustainability and community doesn’t mean ignoring how our developments look. In fact, we should keep in mind the important role that aesthetics can play; people are more likely to want to live and work in beautiful developments, and they’re more likely to be happy in them. Design quality is high on the agenda.
Dame Fiona Reynolds has argued compellingly that making a development attractive and sustainable should not be a last-minute consideration, once the design is complete and if there is enough money left. Instead, it should drive every aspect of the design and planning process.
A successful development is not just a collection of buildings, but the creation of a place with a vison, a culture and a heart. And so developers are taking a holistic approach, building more beautifully, creating places that look good, fostering a sense of community, and encouraging social integration.
By Laura Woodward, Trainee Solicitor, and Jo Davies, Partner, in the real estate team at national law firm Mills & Reeve