Truly mixed and balanced communities

Diverse communities create better social environments. Generally, everyone is in favour of it. So where is the blockage?

Mixed and balanced communities - PRP | BTR News

The most simplistic statement of what constitutes something sustainable is that ‘local is always better than global’. Walking to closer places is better than driving to far away ones. Picking up locally produced goods is preferable to ordering cellophane wrapped, over-packaged parcels from foreign climes. Interacting face-to-face is better than zoom calls with never ‘met-in-the-flesh’ strangers. Local is always better.

By Craig Sheach, Partner at PRP

This focus on local can be said of human interactions as well. Better to have variety and diversity of people within your locale than live in monoculture communities that require travel to be exposed to difference. Mixes of genders, ages, cultures, abilities, and backgrounds in one location can not only create rich and vibrant communities that are sustainable and long-lived but additionally, such diversity enhances social experience, opens minds, forges stronger, more tolerant bonds and produces more productively active neighbourhoods. 

The idea of ‘mixed and balanced’ communities and ‘tenure blind’ design has been around for a long time and applied to projects with varying degrees of success. It has been successfully implemented at the masterplan and urban level but has never really gained traction within a single building. Conceptually it should be the easiest of things to achieve. Student, co-living, Build to Rent and later living (without care) are all institutionally backed, stewarded rental products with enhanced amenity spaces and a focus on user experience and lifestyle. All these tenure types focus on engagement and a shared communal experience. All require similar facilities such as lounges, quiet spaces, wellbeing spaces, postal and delivery rooms, cleaning and maintenance. All look to provide their tenants with high quality, external living and amenity. All share a service charge, which is lower with the more people there are living within the development.

In terms of the industry’s desire to see this happen, local councils – their elected members and their officers, design review panels, research foundations, urbanists and architects generally welcome the idea of mixing tenures, many often insisting upon it. The local community often wants it and are ready to embrace it. Tenants and renters are generally not put off by it so there is a demand and will to achieve it.

Build to Rent and other stewarded housing providers have all the internal skills, infrastructure, thoughtful consideration of community creation and the long-term view to implement and manage it. Their organisations often cover many of the different tenure types, especially the larger funds, so they have the experience and ability to internally co-work to deliver it.

So where is the blockage? 

One of the barriers preventing us from creating truly diverse and mixed communities at an individual building level is simply the internal structures within the institutional bodies, rather than the skill set or experience of their operatives. Often, each tenure type sits within a corporate, operational centre that is experienced in the funding, delivering and managing of only one single typology, one in which they specialise. And I suppose another barrier is the exiting strategy which is difficult. How do you move on from a building and pass it to a new owner or asset manager with multiple mixed typologies and tenures contained within? It limits the market where the asset can be placed and therefore increases the financial and operational risk. At masterplan level, exiting or purchasing a clearly described asset – a building – with a mono-tenure is easy in legal, financial and management terms, but within a single building it becomes significantly more complex. Until this changes there will be little progress on developing a truly diverse and mixed community at building level. This is becoming more significant as we build ever bigger residential buildings in our towns and cities. For instance, PRP’s first mixed-use, mixed tenure social regeneration scheme in the late 90s contained circa 350 homes across six sites, and now one of our latest Build to Rent towers in Stratford contains the same, but with only one product type. 

We know that mixed and diverse communities create better social environments. We know that generally everyone is in favour of it. We know how to design it, provide a detailed specification for it, build it, and we know how to manage it, yet until the holders of funds work out a way of buying it, financially owning and exiting it, truly mixed and multi tenure buildings are a long way off.