How we did it: Improving estate health through design

Community wellbeing has been a key consideration in plans to transform a housing estate in Dorset. Susie Sell reports.

Estate upgraders: head of community regeneration Sue Bickler, neighbourhood officer Martha Searle and resident ambassadors Daryl Venner and Lynn Laird
Estate upgraders: head of community regeneration Sue Bickler, neighbourhood officer Martha Searle and resident ambassadors Daryl Venner and Lynn Laird

Project West Howe, Bournemouth: Active by Design

Organisations involved: Design Council, West Howe Regeneration Partnership, Bournemouth Borough Council, Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner, Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group

Recognition of links between the built environment and community health and wellbeing is becoming increasingly widespread. It has, for instance, underpinned efforts to transform West Howe, a 1950s estate on the edge of Bournemouth.

The estate, a low-density mix of social and owner-occupied homes, faces several social and economic challenges, including high rates of obesity and mental health problems. Between 2003 and 2013, the Big Lottery Fund’s Fair Shares scheme helped support a range of activities, including work to help residents improve their skills and get into work. Tackling poor health was a key recommendation in a strategic assessment produced in 2012.

The West Howe Regeneration Partnership (WHRP) was set up that year to spearhead regeneration. Last May, it commissioned the Design Council to look at ways to refresh community facilities. The Design Council worked through its Active by Design programme, which looks at how to improve health and wellbeing through the planning of the built environment, and was funded by Bournemouth Borough Council, the police and the Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group.

The Design Council team’s studies found that elements of West Howe’s layout contributed to residents’ lack of activity. "It is a very low-density area built for car access, so there are lots of dead ends. It’s not conducive to walking," says project manager Lisa Woo. Open spaces on the estate were also underused, she adds: "We called them the green deserts."

These issues were highlighted in a community engagement scheme launched last summer, coordinated by long-serving neighbourhood officer Martha Searle. Twelve residents were made "community ambassadors" and trained in how to survey the area, using "walkabouts" with other residents to see how it is used and perceived. They also visited examples of successful regeneration to see what might be achieved. "Some had rarely left West Howe in their lives, so when they saw how other areas had improved it opened their eyes," says Woo.

The ambassadors’ survey, carried out last October, generated maps showing how the community uses the physical environment. Results were discussed at a November evaluation workshop and a two-day "visioning festival", which drew 250 participants. Residents’ feedback then informed a vision statement setting out six key "regeneration principles" for West Howe.

The Design Council report, put together within a month of the festival and endorsed by the WHRP in January, proposes to transform the centre of the estate, providing new flats, shops, a health centre and community facilities. Other key measures include turning one of the estate’s open spaces into a park that can be easily accessed by bike or on foot, and enhancing spaces around flats to create places where residents can play, grow food or take exercise.

One idea that has begun to make strides is the "Grot Spots" initiative, which targets courtyards in blocks of flats once used as coal delivery areas that are now derelict or crime hotspots. The WHRP aims to make better use of these for allotments and community facilities, such as open-air gyms. In addition, funding from a local public–private partnership, Green Goals, has enabled development of a bike hire scheme to encourage cycling.

Sue Bickler, head of community regeneration at Bournemouth Borough Council, says the full cost of implementing the report’s proposals has not yet been determined. However, she estimates that the major works, including plans to create the park and revive the heart of the estate, will run into millions. One funding source under scrutiny is a cross-subsidy from releasing land for private housing. In the meantime, some elements of the plan are already being progressed using mainstream budgets, small pots of additional money and community action.

Bickler says Localism Act-style neighbourhood planning hasn’t caught on in this part of Bournemouth. "I’m not sure how helpful it would be, given the plan that we’ve got from the Design Council," she says. Implementation of the West Howe proposals will include a "very comprehensive piece of engagement work with local residents", she says. "Obviously, if residents choose the neighbourhood planning route then we would support it. But it’s not on the agenda at the moment."

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