A new report for the Quality of Life Foundation focuses on what communities can do to shape their areas, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

For the last five years I have been a proud Whalley Ranger. Whalley Range being the neighbourhood where I live in Manchester and the Rangers being the community group set up largely due to the efforts of my friend Dave Saunders.

There are more than 4,000 of us on the group’s Facebook page and over the last five years the Rangers have created a community garden, installed benches, done litter picks, planted alleyways, built planters on our local high street, run markets and festivals and worried local speeding drivers with a community speed check. Through the group my wife Hélène has run a campaign called ‘Weeds are flowers too!’ persuading the council to stop spraying herbicide and organising work parties to weed our pavements.

This is what I had in my head when working with colleagues through lockdown on the Quality of Life Framework that was published by Sadie Morgan’s Quality of Life Foundation last week. Our brief was to explore practical ways in which the built environment can enhance our quality of life. The document is targeted at communities, so I kept asking myself what would the Whalley Rangers do?

Work done by Publica for the foundation had already defined quality of life as ‘the level to which individuals may feel their lives to be happy, active, sociable, interesting and meaningful’. There is a consensus that the places where we live have a profound effect on this quality of life – the houses we inhabit, the neighbourhoods in which those houses sit, the communities that live in those neighbourhoods and the facilities, services, transport and open spaces that plug into those neighbourhoods.

What isn’t so clear is what we should do about it. As Publica concludes, for all the proliferation of design guides, good practice and check lists, ‘what is notable and alarming… is the overall lack of change in the homes being built’.

The framework is based on six themes: control, health, nature, wonder, movement and belonging, each with three sub-themes making 18 in total. The idea was to summarise what the literature says about how each of these issues affects our quality of life and then make a set of practical suggestions aimed at communities, developers and councils – simple!

Well not really.

Firstly, it is not always clear what the best solution is: what does a child-friendly neighbourhood actually look like? What is the best layout to promote strong communities? We know what we want to achieve, we can talk about safety and clean air and open space etc – but what does it actually mean for the places we design, and what about existing places?

Secondly, we need to recognise trade-offs. There is lots of research, for example, proving that green space is really good for us; we are a biophilic species. But too much open space will reduce densities, feel unsafe and make public transport and shops less viable, and these are also important for our quality of life.

Thirdly, we need to beware of middle-class and metropolitan biases. As one of our consultees told us, a parade of local independently owned shops selling fresh produce does little for the quality of life of people who can’t afford the prices. Most guidance on quality of life is also pretty hostile to cars and yet for many people access to a car is really important to their quality of life: it allows them to get to work, to facilities and recreation etc…

Finally, even when we can agree what good looks like, it is not always easy to say how it can be achieved. We were delighted to hear that a community group in Moss Side has organised a series of meetings looking at each of the ‘what you can do’ sections of the framework. But communities can only do so much, even when they are well organised. Developers have more power, at least over new development, but what about existing neighbourhoods? And then there are councils that should be playing such an important role in this area but have been decimated by austerity.

This is why, as Publica says, so little actually happens as a result of all the guidance that has been published. We may therefore have limited our ambition by focusing on what communities like the Whalley Ranges can do. But one has to start somewhere and who knows where it will lead?