Wellbeing: The secret to happiness

How can Harrow encourage inclusivity and wellbeing in new residential developments, to create a wider impact, particularly for older people? Can new buildings and streets make us ‘comfortable, healthy and happy’? How? And how is it measured?

This article was a contribution to “—between hedges and edges”, a publication which accompanied the launch of Harrow Council’s Design Review Panel.

The need to attain a state of wellbeing is universal, but for older generations it is often more challenging to achieve due to reduced independence, reduced mobility and diminishing social networks. According to the Jo Cox Commission 73% of older people described themselves as feeling lonely. We believe that policy makers, planners, developers and designers can play an important role in addressing wellbeing issues, and can do so through simple measures.

Architects, developers, planners and policy makers must address wellbeing thoughtfully. The housing market is such that there is little incentive for developers to engage with stakeholders and expectations for design quality are low – but it is exactly by meaningfully engaging we can develop designs that deliver better value for money and improved quality of life.
Shelter, security, social interaction, identity and self-fulfilment are key to wellbeing, and should be at the centre of Harrow’s drive to build new, residential communities.

Shelter: it’s not as simple as space = happiness

Space is the most important factor in determining satisfaction with a home, yet homes are getting smaller all the time. Research suggests that exceeding one bedroom per person has a positive effect on happiness with 1.5 bedrooms per person being the optimum. But space does not necessarily equal happiness; under-occupation – defined as a property with two or more spare rooms – can result in reduced social interaction and loneliness.

A large proportion of housing stock in Harrow does not currently meet the needs of the population. Some 18% of households live in over-crowded conditions and 26% of all households are under-occupied. This is more acute among pensioners where 44% of properties are underoccupied and they are six times less likely to move home compared to typical households, opting for adaptation instead. The majority of under-occupied dwellings are owner-occupied, with owners living in properties with too much space for want of a more appropriate alternative.

More homes are required across a variety of tenures and sizes to provide more choice.
Innovations in alternative housing models – such as self-build – must be explored to meet need and to make house ownership more affordable. A concerted effort is required to encourage pensioners to ‘right-size’ into dwellings that better meet their long term needs and release their larger properties for family use: desirable homes in sustainable locations with an emphasis on inter-dependence.

Security: The best way to stay safe is to stay connected to the street

Security is the second most import factor in determining satisfaction with a dwelling, but excessive home security can be counter-productive, leading to properties being disconnected from the public realm, social isolation and an increased fear of crime.

Harrow has some of the highest levels of home ownership in London, with 75% of all housing stock being owner-occupied. There are many examples within Harrow where the protection of property and material wealth has resulted in properties retreating from the street with gated forecourts. While this provides a secure environment for the home it makes the street less secure.
All dwellings should benefit from defensible space, a defined extent of private ownership and degrees of shared ownership for personal control over neighbourly interactions. Secure environments should be created through passive surveillance, a clear hierarchy of space and wayfinding to reduce both crime and the perception of crime.

How else can we stay better connected to the streets and to our neighbours?

Sustainable social interaction: learning to share makes better neighbourhoods

Much of the borough could be described as typical of the Metroland suburban model of detached and semi-detached inter-war housing. This model is very low density at around 20 dwellings per hectare. At such low densities the provision of sustainable social infrastructure is particularly challenging.

Between 2010 and 2030 the general population of west London is predicted to increase by 12%; 25% for people over 60 years and 49% for people over 85 years. Clearly, more homes are needed at higher densities, particularly around amenity and transport hubs, and high density housing models should be explored that can sit comfortably in a suburban context.

Extra-care developments for older people require densities of at least 100 dwellings per hectare to sustain care facilities and inter-dependant living. These are also best located in sustainable locations and have the potential to provide social infrastructure for the wider community. To achieve these densities, more debate is required about tall buildings, focusing on visual impact rather than number of storeys. Where appropriate the introduction of tall buildings should be supported, assuming that they are well designed, to reduce harmful visual impact and enhance neighbourhoods.

In suburban neighbourhoods the car becomes the principal mode of travel. Heavy reliance on the car is particularly harmful to health and wellbeing as it leads to disconnected communities and a general retreat from the public realm. In Harrow 53% of all journeys in the borough are by car and as a result car ownership in the borough is high at 1.4 vehicles per household, generally parked at the front of properties and often protected by boundary treatments which disengage the property from the street. Movement strategies that discourage car use and activate streets should be encouraged through measures such as increasing the distance between parked cars and front doors, communal parking areas, car sharing and better provision for cyclists and pedestrians.

The movement, spatial and ownership structures of suburban areas have become routine in that the linear street is principally for vehicular movement, lined on both sides with single ownership properties with no intermediate space between the two. This arrangement is similar to the typical hotel floor arrangement which leads to anonymity and social isolation. Spatial hierarchy and place-making is much needed with shared semi-private space to encourage incidental social interaction amongst neighbours. The monotony of the street and corridor can be combated with properties that activate boundaries and engage with the street. Better still, new spatial and ownership solutions can be introduced such as communal living rooms/squares/gardens/etc.
There is very little communal or shared space in suburbia and what there is relies on management and active participation to bring it into use. Integrating shared spaces with movement strategies and spatial hierarchy will naturally bring these spaces into everyday incidental use. Communal space can play an important role in strengthening communities – a good example being Vauban in Freiburg where cars are separated from homes making the space for vehicular infrastructure available for small community groups to procure their own designs to meet the needs of the community.

Identity: New buildings can help build pride in Harrow’s unique nature

The Metroland vision was to create neighbourhoods of privately owned modern homes, integrated with the natural environment and with a fast railway service into central London.

It’s fair to say that in parts of Harrow this vision has not quite come to fruition and much of suburban Harrow is lacking a strong identity, which can be harmful to self-esteem.

More design guidance is required to establish the types of development that can respect and enhance character, and expectations for good quality architectural design must be raised.

‘Each lover of Metroland may well have his own favourite wood beech and coppice – all tremulous green loveliness in Spring and russet and gold in October’ – The Metroland Guide

Clearly the integration of homes within the natural environment was celebrated and its value was well understood, but over the years we have witnessed the loss of trees and the
replacement of gardens with parking forecourts. The re-naturalisation of the suburbs will not only help re-establish the valuable Metroland identity, but bring wellbeing benefits as residents reconnect with the natural environment.

Self-fulfilment: Helping communities get stuck in

There is a huge latent resource within our communities, and with support local people could be empowered to shape their built environment, helping to forge more sustainable and cohesive communities. The planning, design, procurement and delivery process is a tool to engage citizens and ensure their wellbeing needs are met. This is not simply about the built product but about the process as a means to bring communities together and empower them to become authors and owners of the built environment. This could be in the form of developing Neighbourhood Plans, community design workshops for specific projects, allocation of resource for community procurement, self-build and so on.

We must provide the infrastructure to support self-fulfilment and support the appropriation of space for self-expression. Shared communal space provides the opportunity for community groups to be formed around the design and use of space, transforming it into genuinely public – and social – space.