Housing

Why residents must, must, must have a say in the design of their communities

Co-design is a process in which users are treated as equal collaborators in the design process – breaking down that historical hierarchy between architect/designer, and the public

Central Somers Town, London

With Labour’s promise to deliver the biggest boost to affordable housing for a generation if elected, there needs to be a renewed focus on how we can design affordable housing and deliver it inclusively.

The concern is that swathes of new houses could be designed and built by a coalition of funders, developers, local authorities and architects with little-to-no look in from future tenants, and not enough consideration being given to how this new housing could lead to larger benefits for local communities.

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This is where co-design comes in – a design process becoming commonly used and talked about within the world of architecture, but not nearly enough beyond it. The term co-design describes the act of designing collectively with local stakeholders and users. To go a step further, it describes a process in which these users are treated as equal collaborators in the design process – breaking down that historical hierarchy between architect/designer, and the public.

Copper Lane, Stoke Newington, London

It is an approach we are passionate about promoting the merits of, and with the support of RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) and UCL (University College London), we recently published a co-design report and user guide, which examines how the co-design process can be embedded effectively and meaningfully into projects. Not only do we believe co-design can achieve better buildings, but, on a much grander scale, we believe it can help us move towards a fairer, more equitable, and more inclusive built environment all round.

As part of this report, we carried out research into a number of developments where co-design has been used to help to facilitate this redistribution of power, and truly inform a project outcome. These range from the development and design of a new public square and youth space in Wembley, through to a masterplan for a housing-led urban extension in Ashford, Kent. Community-led, affordable housing developments that adopt co-design methods in London are currently few and far between though, found mostly on small-scale infill sites typically overlooked by large developers.

However, there are a handful of cases flying the flag for alternative models of housing, which we should be shining a light on wherever possible. Two such examples are St Clements in Mile End and Citizens House in Lewisham. Community-led organisation London Community Land Trust (CLT) campaigned long and hard for both projects on the back of promises made in the major 2012 Olympic regeneration project. They also facilitated long-term community engagement and co-design processes to deliver them to a high standard.

Citizens House, a development of 11 affordable homes on surplus council-owned land, is London CLT’s first direct development, co-designed by architecture practice Archio with members of the local community, who made key decisions at every step. Opened earlier this year, all the households that have moved into the new development have roots in the area, and include families, local teachers, artists, and NHS workers. 

Citizens House, Lewisham, London

In the case of St Clements, over 350 local people took part and were given the opportunity to help develop design solutions for the future of the site – a former workhouse infirmary – working alongside architecture practice JTP. Completing in 2017, the development now provides 23 genuinely and permanently affordable homes to the local community.

Another case study showcasing an alternative housing model is London’s first co-housing scheme, Copper Lane, which completed in 2014 in Stoke Newington on the site of a disused nursery.

Co-housing – intentional communities, created and run by their residents – is a relatively young, but steadily growing concept in the UK. The Copper Lane scheme, developed and co-designed by architects Henley Halebrown with a group of residents, consists of six homes arranged around a shared central courtyard with communal gardens, and shared social and domestic spaces. Copper Lane has led to many more examples of its type, perhaps most famously the all-female New Ground cohousing group, who co-designed their ideal community in Barnet.

Co-design is not only bound to housing but can play a pivotal role in re-envisioning our public realm. The landscape masterplan for Central Somers Town – a major inner-city neighbourhood between Euston and Kings Cross, was developed and co-designed by DSDHA and existing Central Somers Town residents, to create a new and accessible public realm and green spaces which cater for all of its user groups, including women, children, non-binary and ethnically diverse individuals, families and groups.

By bringing together some of these case studies, and creating this guide, we hope that we can help all stakeholders involved in the planning and development process – including residents, designers, developers, and local authorities – to achieve more meaningful participation in co-design processes, moving us slowly but surely towards greater spatial justice in our cities.

Tom Greenall is a director of the architecture, landscape and research studio at DSDHA and tutor at the Royal College of Art.

Jane Wong is an architect at DSDHA and tutor at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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