Social sustainability and placemaking

To incorporate social sustainability and placemaking, should the solution be to push ground floor space outwards and open to all?

Craig Sheach, Partner at PRP who discusses social sustainability and placemaking | BTR News
Craig Sheach, Partner at PRP who discusses social sustainability and placemaking.

Rather than providing facilities buried deep or at high level in Build to Rent developments, exclusive to residents only, should the solution be to push ground floor space outwards and open to all to create true social sustainability and placemaking?

By Craig Sheach, Partner at PRP

If one would be simplistic and describe a Build to Rent development, we would say they are located on sites close to transport infrastructure with good local facilities, and have a single 24-hour super lobby that restricts access to the exclusive residents’ amenities. If one were to scratch no deeper than that, the similarity to high end West London residential blocks owned by the wealthy would make some throw their hands up in the air and cry ‘gated development’.

The difference between the bolthole for the exclusive and Build to Rent is the potential that the long-term curation brings. Build to Rent investors care about the wider offer, their place within the local community and their developments for the long term and its continued success.

The primary interface between any building and the local community is the ground-scape which, in recent times, has become one of the greatest challenges to good urban design. Higher densities are putting massive pressure on the ability for a building to activate the street. The greater quantum above is increasing back of house facilities at ground, reducing the designer’s ability to create active frontages. Costs preclude basements and facilities above ground are technically and functionally challenging. Exacerbating this is the well documented ‘death of the high street’, Covid ravaged retail and the work from home revolution. All are impacting ground floor activity to a point where our streets and spaces could start to be in danger of being boarded up with plywood and powder coated ventilation louvres. It’s simple – no active frontages mean no placemaking.

Returning to Build to Rent. Rather than providing facilities buried deep within or at high level, exclusive for residents only, shouldn’t the solution be to push this space to the ground floor, outwardly looking and open to all? Some forms of curated rental products – co-living and later-living especially – are doing this regularly with co-working space, cafes and narrated ground floor commercial and retail space. Could Build to Rent also embrace this and make it the norm? Certainly, some UK developments and many US ones are taking tentative first steps in this direction, as we are seeing within some of our projects. We believe it can work if we want it to.

Yes, this all makes for a greater management headache but the benefits are obvious. The local populous has access to carefully managed and curated amenities whose long-term success is part-secured by the development’s sponsorship and stewardship. Local residents interact with new tenants, welcoming them into their community. Tenants also gain from this arrangement. They can access vibrant amenities that, because they are shared, reduce development overhead and therefore potentially rent. The traditional introverted Build to Rent development with its stage-sets and themed amenities are replaced by a more authentic place-specific set of facilities. Residents feel ‘part of’, and contribute to, the local community creating a truly socially sustainable place.

What would be the next logical step? Post-pandemic, we all understand and need for access to open space and the value of socialising for one’s mental health, especially in the core Build to Rent demographic. Could Build to Rent private amenity spaces be managed to be part open to the public, much like the grand Georgian squares of London, to be secured at dusk. Could play facilities be shared in the same way? After all, children don’t care about legal agreements and ownership boundaries.

Build to Rent thinking is developing all the time and, unlike the traditional home owner model, it is more flexible and responsive to need. This suppleness means that the boundaries of what is possible for the ground floor can be stretched and re-imagined. In the end, an outwardly facing, democratic ground floor environment is a force for community cohesion, and should form part of our toolkit when considering social sustainability and placemaking.