Are Good-Quality Environments Socially Cohesive? Measuring Quality and Cohesion in Urban Neighbourhoods

By Dempsey, Nicola | The Town Planning Review, May 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Are Good-Quality Environments Socially Cohesive? Measuring Quality and Cohesion in Urban Neighbourhoods


Dempsey, Nicola, The Town Planning Review


The provision of good-quality places in which residents enjoy living, now and in the future, is a chief objective of built environment professionals and policy makers the world over. While the claimed associations between good-quality neighbourhoods and social cohesion might seem obvious, there is little empirical research that examines them in detail. This article examines the theoretical background to such claims and provides empirical evidence on how the urban form and features of the built environment influence social cohesion in local neighbourhoods. The findings show a number of significant relationships between features of quality and dimensions of social cohesion, particularly those which are reliant on residents' perceptions of where they live. This suggests a real need for neighbourhood renewal, urban planning and design policy and practice to focus on increasing residents' satisfaction with, and perceptions of, their neighbourhood, alongside improvements to the physical environment.

There is a sustained focus in theory and policy on the role that the built environment has in supporting everyday social activity (Amin et al., 2000). Good-quality public spaces are said to engender feelings of safety, a sense of community and mutual trust among users and residents as well as an adherence to shared norms and values 'where ethnically and culturally diverse groups can co-exist peacefully' (Mulgan et al., 2006, 28). The importance of well designed and well planned places can be seen in the wealth of urban design guidance and the current focus in UK policy on 'liveability', or the creation of clean, safe and green public spaces and streets (DCLG, 2006a). Such theory, policy and practice are based on the assumption that people's behaviour and activity is influenced, if not determined, by the physical environment. This assumption guided much post-war planning and architecture, and, it will be argued here, is still prevalent today. After a review of the theoretical claims about the influence environment has on behaviour, this article will call on research examining the effects that good-quality neighbourhoods are claimed to have on social cohesion, which is defined below. There is currently little empirical research examining the claimed associations between good-quality urban environments and socially cohesive behaviour. Furthermore, it is not clear exactly what is meant by 'good-quality places'; some theorists describe the visual quality of a place, while others focus on how well residents' use of a place is supported (Carmona et al., 2003; Jarvis, 1980). With reference to a review of the existing literature, features of the quality of the built environment, dimensions of social cohesion and other intervening indicators were identified. The definitions of these concepts were then used to establish sets of indicators to be used in primary data collection in six study site neighbourhoods in England. Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis methods, the relationship between individual features of quality - and combinations thereof - and dimensions of social cohesion is examined. The findings are discussed alongside the current dominant interpretations of the relationship between the built environment and users, such as the government's 'cleaner, safer, greener' policy. The implications of the research findings in relation to environmental determinism are explored, and some recommendations are made for further research, policy and practice.

The physical environment and social cohesion: theoretical background

There has long been a close conceptual relationship between good-quality physical environments and the beneficial effects they are claimed to have on residents and users. Historically, the rapid urbanisation associated with industrialisation has provided the impetus for efforts in architecture, planning and urban design to provide good environments in which people can live. …

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