The emphasis of ‘liveability’ in high density housing is most commonly placed on the quality of fittings, finishes, layout etc. of the apartment; but the quality and design of shared spaces and how they connect with the city are still the most commonly underemphasised in the design and delivery of high density housing, despite all we have learned from the likes of Newman, Gehl, Cooper and other seminal authors. Certainly we have a wealth of guidelines and knowledge addressing urban integration of high density housing, perhaps the most comprehensive in Australia being SEPP 65. However the emerging research seems to point to two persisting areas of lived experience where we have not improved: in the areas of social isolation and a lack of connection to nature.
Human connection and access to nature
Again and again, well-being and health studies point to the need for human connection to support good mental health and sense of purpose. Many common spaces in high-rise buildings actively work against residents developing a sense of neighbourliness and community. Scuttling past your neighbour’s door in a narrow and anonymous corridor to be pressed up against people you don’t know in the lift doesn’t qualify as a high quality informal interaction. Neither does avoiding the provided ‘recreation areas’ because through design they feel unsafe, or disconnected, or conversely owned by only a small group of residents. Landing on the street in ungenerous spaces that emphasise security over sociable connection to the city can similarly reinforce a sense of ‘anomie’.
There is also a growing body of research that indicates that the lived experience of higher density urban lifestyles is leading to a collective ‘nature deficit’. There is a wealth of literature describing the psychological and health benefits of connection to nature, and a growing concern that high density urban lifestyles without nature-connection exacerbate stress and poor health. There are surely strong liveability benefits in designing for much stronger nature connections in our spaces of social connection.
Given the strong imperatives to ‘densify’, we need to renew our focus on creating social connectedness in high density housing, creating opportunities for landscape and nature connection whilst we do this. New development needs to focus strongly on the following key principles:
- The greater the density the greater the green; always connecting density to activated green space in city planning and site master planning
- ‘Village-ification’ of high-rise spaces – creating sub communities within high-density through the creation of intermediary common green spaces
- Strong focus on informal shared spaces – emphasising the quality of transition spaces at apartment doors, generous corridors, and designing for generosity and presence of landscape in places that might become places of informal meetings such as lift lobbies
- Creating activated ground level connections that contribute to street and urban settings whilst also creating places of green respite
These areas will be the next frontier for creating more liveable high density residential settings.
The Higher Density Living conference, taking place in Melbourne this May, will explore strategies for making medium and high densities affordable, desirable and sustainable. Book soon to secure your place!