Last week we went on a family holiday through Belgium to the Netherlands visit some friends who live in Haren, just outside Groningen. Besides from having a great time with our friends, we found it to be a wonderful friendly neighbourhood. Our friends knew most of the people on their street. This, we found, was not uncommon. Why is this the case in Haren and not in typical new-build british developments?
There are a couple of factors that spring to mind.
1. Street Design. The houses were not huge, no bigger than standard 3 or 4-bed new-build houses in the UK. They had higher ceilings, which made them feel more spacious, and open plan lounge-diner-kitchens, unlike most new built British houses. But it was the layout of the houses that made the difference. Parking was at the front and were organised in small rows, not too long. When they stepped out of their house they are likely to bump into someone else on their street, increasing opportunity for acquaintance.
2. Community Space. In their small neighbourhood there was ample outside space for gathering, playing or walking in. On their street was a pond with ducks. Within very easy walking distance (less than a one minute walk) there were four small children’s play parks with grassy areas
for playing games. Some of these were situated behind the houses in otherwise dead space. In England, the developers would have tried to squeeze some flats out back. In Haren, this is vital and well-used community gathering space. I imagine in the summer some of these are used for barbecues.
3. Lifestyle. Dutch people cycle. Children cycle to school, adults cycle to work and to the shops. They cycle in the sun and in the rain. There are cycle expressways that are separate from the main motorways so people can cycle in safety. Even in big cities like Amsterdam, there are safe cycle routes on every street that are, in the most part, separated from the road. When you cycle, you catch up with other cyclists and cycle with them. You talk to your neighbour as you both ride to town. The Dutch lifestyle helps community adhesion.
I am not stupid enough to think that suddenly the British will develop a love for cycling. There are no hills in the Netherlands and, without proper cycle-paths, it is considerably more dangerous. But there is no reason why decent road and house layouts couldn’t help foster a sense of community in the UK.
On our estate, a lot of the parking is at the back, meaning that people sneak out of their back doors into their cars and are less likely to bump into their neighbours. There is only one children’s play area at the moment, and whilst it is very close to our house, this is almost a mile from other houses on the same development. Contrast that with four play areas within a one minute walk of our friends’ house in Haren. We have levelling ponds on our development, which are adequately pretty, but they are tucked out of the way. Why not build houses around them and make them a focus?
It reminded me of Kevin McCloud’s housing development in Swindon which used some of these ideas on a smaller scale.
Simple things in design can help grow a community.