Learning point: key placemaking issues for housing

The following learning point from 2010 captures key placemaking issues relating to housing. It is based on learning across a range of projects we have seen through our design advice. 

A photograph of a housing estate viewed from across a green field with a blue sky above

Key placemaking issues for housing

The following learning point, which was published in 2010, captures key placemaking issues relating to housing. This comes from learning across a range of projects we have seen through our design advice (formerly know as Design Forum). The summary is intended to help those with a role in shaping, decision-making or delivery of plans, policies, briefs, and development proposals to support successful placemaking. 

New housing, whether one-off or procured in volume, has the potential to create benefits to house buyers, residents, neighbouring communities, businesses, and the environment where it is located. Good design can help achieve such benefits and can maximise their potential through the process of site selection, land acquisition, the commissioning of consultants as well as the development and delivery of successful housing layouts and design.


Housing is the single most important building type in terms of influencing the quality of people’s day-to-day lives. Skilful design will add value to all housing developments, whether on urban sites, in areas of high cultural value or simply providing for a new or extended residential community.

Collaboration between design disciplines is essential. For example, architects shouldn’t overly influence the plot design, civil engineers the street design, or landscape architects the design of parks and open spaces.

Effective site-specific design requires collaborative working between all disciplines. At the heart is the creation of places that enhance the lives of those who will live there and maximise the integration with the existing place.

Participative design should form part of a process of enquiry and testing of design proposals, for example as part of a Pre-application Consultation (PAC). This is to help ensure that local needs are met, conflicts are avoided, and the best value is gained for the local area in terms of socio-economic regeneration.

Strategic decisions

Urban design considerations affect the design of all scales of housing. Concepts of urban design such as permeability, legibility, identity, enclosure, activation and passive surveillance need to be properly understood so that architects, policymakers and developers can apply their relevance to the benefit of those whose lives will be improved by them.

We need to learn the lessons from zonal planning and the historic effect of the social segregation of suburban communities. Guidance on the provision of tenure blind housing, i.e. providing affordable or social housing that is fully integrated with, and preferably indistinguishable from private housing, sets out as its intent the avoidance of segregation, and potential ghettoization, of any part of the community.

To reduce the risk of creating a totally car-dependent lifestyle, new housing has the potential either to provide good access to local services and employment and/or to incorporate home offices, small business space or otherwise a mix of uses on site.


Each site will have unique characteristics that can influence both the architecture of house types and equally significantly the overall layout and massing of buildings, alignment of streets, the orientation of gardens, shelter for community open space and strategic location of woodland.

There needs to be a balance between the climatic design of individual houses and the overall appreciation of the site layout. Solar orientation should be considered for the individual house but also for the layout of inside/outside space, and also the implications for the attractiveness of the street.

Placemaking, social and economic sustainability criteria and climatic design are part of a wider picture of sustainable housing design that needs to be considered in conjunction with Building Standards relating to the energy performance of building fabric, the potential of a site for harvesting renewable energy sources, and the selection of materials with greater longevity or low embodied energy.

You can read more about our more recent work on climate and design here.
You can also explore materials and sustainable design resources on our Materials Library website. 

Context and layout

The layout of streets, routes, paths, playgrounds and parks in new housing should be informed by a close analysis of, and response to, the form, visual links, topography, vegetation and other characteristic natural structures of the immediate and wider landscape. This in turn will make the public realm more accessible, more likely to be used, and should assist with health and sustainable transport objectives.

To nurture a sense of identity and the development of communities, designers should be briefed and enabled to find a suitably coherent form for each site, locality or climatic/topographic condition, beyond the limitations of individual private houses. Rural, suburban or urban housing which has a collective character either forming streets and squares or, for example, by forming sheltered enclosures within the wider landscape, has the capacity to link and integrate to form recognisable and valued places.

Layouts which avoid gardens backing onto public space wherever possible, while at the same time providing public space with adequate surveillance by, and interaction with, residents, are most likely to be successful. Where gardens backing on to landscape tracts are unavoidable, robust boundaries such as garden walls or dense planting will assist in defining such boundaries.

Parking can be integrated with a layout and discreetly handled such that it does not dominate the public realm. This needs to be balanced, however, with the loss of activity which the creation of a secondary infrastructure of rear parking courts or lanes giving access to remote parking, creates. The solution is likely to be found by balancing these factors.

Built form

Study and a proper understanding of the form, character, density, scale and material of built form, architecture and morphology of local buildings, townscapes or other indigenous built typologies will usefully influence the integration of new housing. This doesn't need to lead to a historical pastiche, rather a site-specific architectural language to create a sense of place, which in turn reinforces communities.

New forms of streets, deriving from common practice in Scandinavian and Dutch neighbourhoods can reclaim residential streets as attractive and liveable pedestrian environments bringing activity and vitality to residential areas with numerous environmental, health and social benefits. The principles are now embedded in Scotland through national urban design and road policies. These are incorporated in the Designing Places and Designing Streets policy documents.  

Streets, squares, parks and routes have the capacity to become shared outdoor living spaces, interacting with adjoining houses and consciously designed to be enjoyed. The application of Home Zones and the Designing Streets principles have a fundamental influence on previous roads policy and should shape residential streets beyond what was previously possible and towards the potential to create shared spaces which foster a sense of community.

The function of key public spaces, closes, lanes and paths can be supported by interactive architecture, for example windows and doors to the street for passive surveillance, or shopfronts and entrances at local centres and high streets. Where activity which includes for example cafes, communal eating or socialising spaces, and children playing out, can spill out onto a properly designed shared-surface street, there is clear potential for community enhancement.

The interaction between indoor and outdoor uses and spaces is critical for the attractiveness of the public realm, and the likelihood of it becoming a safe and well used place. The floor plans and internal layout of each individual house or house type has a key role in providing for this interaction, as does the proximity of the house type to the street, and the boundary edge treatment between the two.

This resource was published in 2010 as part of our advice work for housing. For more up to date information about our work on housing please get in touch with us. 

Headline image: Trayan on Unsplash

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