Public space next to Regent’s Canal within the King’s Cross development, London
Public space next to Regent’s Canal within the King’s Cross development, London © Corbis/Getty Images

“A community’s character isn’t just about buildings, it’s about its people,” Bill de Blasio said earlier this year. The mayor of New York was setting out his argument for building at higher densities in order to preserve the city’s social mix.

“We have to decide what we value more: keeping a building from rising one extra storey, or keeping someone who has lived in a neighbourhood for 40 or 50 years from being forced out,” he said.

His concerns are shared by an unlikely ally: the archbishop of Canterbury. Earlier this year, Justin Welby said there needed to be “a sharp-edged challenge to the kind of isolation that comes with extreme wealth”.

The archbishop is worried about the social consequences of the wave of high-rise new developments spreading along London’s riverfront. A report published by the local Anglican church in Southwark earlier this year warned that “new neighbourhoods are springing up and established communities are watching as immense change takes place”.

The Church of England is so worried about the social challenges posed by the 24,000 new homes under construction in the Nine Elms area of west London that it has employed an outreach worker to build links between established communities and the incomers.

It is not alone. Community workers, policymakers and urban planners across the world are grappling with the challenge of integrating old and new communities and building a sense of place once physical construction is completed.

Interaction with neighbours is an important part of personal wellbeing, according to research published last year by Sheffield university. Yet a recent Chinese study found there were lower levels of social interaction in new housing developments than in older areas that were physically more deprived.

Understanding how neighbourhoods develop socially, therefore, can help planners improve their work. Get it wrong and a new development could become a concrete wasteland: unloved, branded a failure and torn down within a few decades. Get it right and it could help a city to grow without pricing out the workers it needs.

Gated communities are the archetypal closed society. They have long been criticised for their reluctance to integrate new residents into the surrounding community. In addition to restricted-access housing, they often offer private outdoor spaces. “Rather than trekking to a public park, residents of these luxury residences can enjoy the sun in their own park-like private spaces,” reads one promotional email for a collection of New York properties.

Nine Elms project in west London
Nine Elms project in west London © Damac Int

This is precisely the wrong approach for developers, according to architect John McAslan, who says such schemes are “not real places”.

McAslan, who oversaw the redevelopment of King’s Cross station, says the key to making a new area attractive to prospective residents and visitors is to harness its history and draw in outsiders. “Where there’s something to retain, it adds richness and variety; you’re not going to get that diversity emerging if you offer virtually no social space.”

He wants city authorities to do more to link up isolated new developments. Urban planners should produce a “citywide development plan to stitch together those fragmented and inserted new bits of community to make them into places people want to move through and occupy and come into”.

Andrew Jones, a managing director at urban planning consultancy Aecom, urges governments and investors to consider new developments over a multi-decade timescale.

“New large community developments are 50-year projects,” he says. “You’ve got to get through a couple of generations for people to start feeling they’re part of the place and for it to have a maturity about it — people who have those cultural and community connections, people who have grown up with the kids next door, gone to school together and got married.”

A terraced street in Manchester, 1965
A terraced street in Manchester, 1965 © Shirley Baker/Mary Evans Picture Library

One example of an attempt to foster social bonds in new developments can be found in the US. Retirement specialists have over the past couple of decades evolved from catering simply for people in the last stages of their lives with facilities dominated by medical care to a more lifestyle-focused product aimed at baby boomers who are still active but want to downsize.

These “active adult” communities include a wide range of physical and social activities, from golf courses to exercise classes, in a bid to offer their target audience not just a home but a ready-made circle of friends.

Yet the design of such developments — and that of high-density inner-city housing schemes — illustrates a significant change in the way in which new developments function. In the postwar years a church or community centre would usually sit at the heart of a new estate. Today, it is more often a bar, gym or other paid-entry business.

This means that “social and economic inequalities are being built in”, according to Noha Nasser, an architect and academic who studies the influence of culture on urban design.

As a result, any efforts to foster a sense of community could be stymied before they even get under way. All the more reason for architects, planners and politicians to think about the community they are trying to create before they start work on its physical design.

Kate Allen is an FT political correspondent

Photographs: Corbis/Getty Images; Damac Int; Shirley Baker/Mary Evans Picture Library; Anthony Pidgeon/Getty Images; Nick Moore/Alamy

This article has been amended since publication to clarify that John McAslan oversaw the redevelopment of King’s Cross station; the masterplan of the wider King’s Cross area was carried out by Allies and Morrison

The good, the bad and the ugly

What works

Portland, Oregon, US

Cathedral Park in Portland
Cathedral Park in Portland © Anthony Pidgeon/Getty Images

John McAslan says the city “established a benchmark” in the US. He praises its “innovative planning, reuse of old buildings and industrial space, really good public realm and community spaces, green transport with trams and a proper cycling network”.

Milton Keynes, UK

The town is one of the best examples of why placemaking takes decades, according to Andrew Jones. Milton Keynes was one of the postwar “new towns” built to relieve pressure on London. “Only in the last five or six years has it started to have a positive profile to the external world of a growing new city, rather than a place people went for necessity because they could afford to live there,” says Jones.

Cities in the Netherlands

Jones praises the community focus of Dutch cities and “the way they have evolved with a focus on [the] public realm”. Their use of public space is “very interesting: children play on the streets, people cycle instead of [driving] cars”.

What doesn’t work

Chelsea Harbour, London

Chelsea Harbour, London
Chelsea Harbour, London © Nick Moore/Alamy

McAslan describes it as a “mono-use, closed-off gated development”. “When you go there, you think ‘What am I doing here?’,” he says. “It makes no effort to connect up with the bits of city around it; it denies people the opportunity to interact with it.”

Developing Asian cities

Jones criticises places where “developments are seen as high-rise, building-based projects”. “High-rise is a challenge, compartmentalising the space can make it pretty exclusive and off-putting.”

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