When COVID struck, our homes became our offices, schools and gyms. But for many people living without gardens and sometimes even natural light, the conditions were grim. Here, Professor Flora Samuel explains how new research will capture positive aspects of neighbourhoods during lockdown and will help planners design resilient homes and neighbourhoods for a greener future.

old red phone box with posters in windows
A lockdown Library in a disused phone box

An unequal lock down

At no other point in living memory has the impact of the design of housing and neighbourhoods been felt so strongly as it has for those in lock down, particularly vulnerable individuals who have been unable to leave their homes.

Homes have had to adapt radically to accommodate home working, schooling and exercise regimes while hopefully offering a positive environment to support health and wellbeing by providing access to natural light and green open space.

In functional neighbourhoods, networks have developed, often online, to help the ill, frail and elderly. Deliveries of food from local shops and farms has reawakened an awareness of the ‘local’ and keeping fit has been easy in a network of local parks and safe streets. All this consolidated by the weekly presence of neighbours on their doorsteps clapping in support of the NHS has built a new sense of community.

But for many in less fortunate situations, poor community links and little access to safe outside space has been the overriding experience. And for many living in flats that have been converted from offices, the situation has been particularly bad. Many of these spaces lack natural light and are inappropriate for human habitation (Park, 2019).

Unhealthy and poor-quality housing, financial worries, isolation and loneliness have exacerbated inequalities and impacted on mental and physical health. And whilst there has been evidence of a reduction in pollution caused by reduced transport activity, recycling and garden waste are now in many cases being sent to landfill.

So how can we build on the positives to ensure future housing provides more functional neighbourhoods?

A collaborative approach to housing design

As part of a series of projects coordinated by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), we are carrying out a research project that focusses on the role of housing and neighbourhood design in resilience.

A range of organisations are currently undertaking research into the impact of homes and places on issues relating to the social value – the way in which design can facilitate connections between people, encourage active lifestyles and foster positive emotions, for example through contact with nature.

We will be collecting positive stories of change during lockdown and find ways to capture the elements that will support better future planning design and delivery for new houses and homes.

Collating evidence to support a green recovery

We’ll be interviewing policy makers, local authorities, third sector organisations and people who can influence the direction of travel of home design in future, speaking to them about the impact of the pandemic in their areas. We’ll be talking to stakeholders in all four UK nations that operate under very different policy positions.

We’ll also be collating as much evidence as possible from the many research projects that are ongoing around the impact of homes on people, on home working, productivity etc. We’ll be bringing that evidence together with information from interviewees.

The report we produce will present options for how we can do things better in future. This will support a green recovery, allowing us to develop neighbourhoods that are resilient and sustainable and great places to live.

Professor Flora Samuel is Professor of Architecture and a member of CaCHE.

The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) is a consortium of 14 institutions led by the University of Glasgow. The Centre, which was established in August 2017, is a multidisciplinary partnership between academia, housing policy and practice. Over the course of the five-year programme, CaCHE researchers will produce evidence and new research which will contribute to tackling the UK’s housing problems at a national, devolved, regional, and local level. CaCHE is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.