Where it began - how the built environment affects social value

In 2007, I started my first full time job at Space Syntax, a design consultancy firm specialised in spatial network and movement analysis. As it transpired, my very first project starkly manifested the inevitability of social implications the built environment has.

The development site was located in Central London, on the border between two areas with distinctive characters. To simply put, one side was an affluent area with luxury boutiques and ultra-prime residential buildings. The other was more modest in comparison with corner shops and housing estates. The proposed scheme was predominantly residential including affordable housing (50% of the total residential units). The rest was luxury flats befitting the ultra-prime residential market of the neighbourhood.

On the site plan, the luxury flats occupied nearly two thirds of the site, leaving affordable housing to be squeezed in the land half the size (the same number of storeys across the site). The drawings mathematically visualised the level of inequality that was embedded in the built form. That was disappointing enough. Then came more alarming news when the architect indicated that there would be a fence between the affordable housing cluster and the rest of the site. A solid fence with no access points. A fence that denies natural social mixing between residents not only within the development but also in the surrounding areas. A fence that represents the prioritisation of financial value over values - apparently “otherwise they (luxury flats) wouldn’t sell.”*

The late Professor Bill Hillier, the founder of space syntax theory, used to say “spatial segregation, social segregation” meaning that the former leads to the latter (e.g., Hillier and Vaughan, 2007). Such phenomena are unfortunately not uncommon (e.g., The Guardian article on “poor doors,” Serin, 2019 on built-in equality in cities). However, they are not always intended. As the recent ULI research suggested, it is also contributed by the lack of understanding how the built environment influences human behaviour and perception amongst various stakeholders including architects and planners, as well as real estate investors and developers.

My encounter with this project undoubtedly contributed to setting the course of my career, which has evolved into COCREATIF. My particular focus as a social value strategist is to optimise the social impact of development and urban planning decisions by integrating social value creation with corporate strategies and project design. The earlier this is done, the more levers available to balance social impact with financial and environmental performance. Understanding how the built environment affects social elements of our lives is vital in seeking the right balance between social, financial/economic and environmental outcomes.

* The scheme had a major overhaul for various reasons but this issue of social division. Currently (April 2021) the development is not fully completed but the masterplan seems to be more inclusive. I look forward to visiting the development once it is open.