C O M M U N I T Y  B U I L D I N G

We need a more open and inclusive conversation about the ways community engage with developments and understand the potential to renew and enrich our local economic, public and civic life.

In Dorset and across the UK, substantial parcels of undeveloped ‘greenfield’ sites are seen as fertile ground for new housing developments because they are lower cost, lower risk, and offer a ‘blank canvas’ in planning terms on which to lay out a scheme. These developments are typically low density, sprawling suburban models which give priority to both vehicle mobility and to a multitude of small, private gardens over shared amenities and environments, offering little of the generosity of common space that enables a proper sense of social and civic life to develop.

This conventional approach to housing pay little regard to local habitats and ecosystems, and instead tend to degrade the environment, building over open areas of land and causing harm. The design of these housing projects conjure a ‘traditional’ aesthetic, cheaply reproducing a generic ‘vernacular style’ using a palette of materials that across the scale of these developments becomes uniform and ubiquitous. The historicism of the materials disguises high levels of embodied energy and toxicity involved in their production, with often large travel distances involved in their procurement and dubious labour standards in their extraction and processing. They consist of primarily semi-detached or detached houses catering to traditional ideas about families and households rather than the more varied requirements of an increasingly diverse contemporary society, resulting in housing which is often beyond the means of many local people on lower incomes.

With little to judge a successful scheme other than whether it individually turns a profit, these schemes prioritise short-term private, financial gains for the developer over the immense potential of broader long-term social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits that a more ambitious, generous and holistic approach is capable of delivering. This approach also leads to higher and higher house prices in Bridport and the surrounding villages, which, coupled with lower than average wages, presents significant challenge.

Strengthening community

Conventional approaches to greenfield development produce a limited public benefit – local businesses struggle to capture a share of the business and jobs that a large development project and communities experience little direct benefit, either in the form of new public infrastructure, shared spatial assets or affordable housing that meets local needs.

There are a number of community-driven initiatives in Bridport which aim to address this, notably a completed Community Land Trust housing development, a co-housing project working on an imminent 64-house build, a Self-Build Group, and an annual Open Eco Homes week which facilitates information sharing and peer support. Historically, the Skilling neighbourhood of Bridport – one of Britain’s earliest housing schemes designed to Garden City principles – were affordable, good quality, utilising local materials and promoting a healthier living environment by integrating dwellings with outdoor space.

A century later, new housing should aspire to be equally ambitious – meeting local needs by providing for young and older people as well as families and offering alternative to traditional forms of ownership and management. It is time to start strengthening communities by building great homes that local people can afford to live in within new neighbourhoods that are civic, sociable and distinctive, equal in ambition to the visionary housing projects that sought to make good housing universally available a century ago.