Socially mixed communities are seen as vital to long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability. Recent policy documents such as the housing green paper have emphasised the importance of lifetime neighbourhoods, championing the capacity of mixed communities to allow areas to adapt to changing housing needs and preferences over time.
But what is the evidence that mixed communities work? Research suggests that social interaction at the neighbourhood level is generally very low. For instance, Marion Roberts reports on three case studies in Glasgow, Manchester and North Shields in a Planning Theory and Practice article, 8(2), p183.
Another three study areas are described by Rionach Casey et al in Town Planning Review, 78(3), p311. Like Roberts, the authors conclude that it is possible to develop successful mixed-income communities. Yet such success is far from guaranteed. Suitable design and provision of accessible services are prerequisites and require careful planning.
To some extent this is becoming a truism in relation to government policy, but it raises some practical questions. How big is a mixed community? How do we design and measure social interaction? The researchers point out that despite the emphasis on balanced communities, the levels and kinds of social mix that may be desirable are not specified to avoid accusations of social engineering.
Roberts gives a detailed comparison of private and social housing mixes in three case study areas with difficult markets. She notes the strong influence that visible signs of potential stigma may have on social interactions. At the same time, the quality and integration of the public realm can overcome segregation between different types of housing. This allows alternatives to pepperpotting, in which social and private houses are closely interspersed.
Casey et al describe results from mature developments, namely those that are at least 20 years old, specifically designed to support social mix. Their physical environments were planned with a wide range of services and facilities and their quality has directly affected the extent to which they are used. Neighbourhood layout favours walking and cycling, with priority measures for public transport. There is also high-quality landscaping, open space and play areas.
In all cases, house prices have been more buoyant than in neighbouring areas and owners cited these factors among the main reasons for choosing to buy there. Mixed tenure was found to have helped maintain kinship support networks by allowing grown-up children to settle in the same area as their parents and enabling frequent contact with grandparents.
Residents were asked to record the number of people they met during daily activities outside their households. The results corroborate findings that where urban design is used to encourage walking and discourage car use when travelling to facilities, this has a significant impact on levels of social contact.
Research from Australia by Lorinne du Toit et al, reported in Urban Studies, 44(9), p1,677, cautions that neighbourhood sociability depends on many factors other than urban form alone. However, this presents a fertile area for further research. It may well be that the way in which urban form interacts with other factors such as social profiles determines social activity.
Jenny Crawford is RTPI head of research and knowledge.