Influences Upon Sustainability

The purpose of this guidance is to help deliver high-quality sustainable development which integrates innovation in design. It establishes a methodology for the process which identifies appropriate development densities, how places are designed and how they should respond to community needs. These requirements are set out in a series of development criteria:

  • Spatial criteria
  • Building and site criteria
  • Community criteria
Development Criteria Sustainability objectives
Spatial Criteria  Walkable neighbourhoods and good access to public transport
Resource efficiency in use of land density
Improving local services and job opportunities
Mixed-use development
Buildings and site criteria     Minimising waste
Reducing pollution
Sustainable construction, sustainable drainage and energy efficiency
Water conservation
Conserving and enhancing biodiversity
Smart infrastructure and connectivity
Community criteria   Mixed communities
Social cohesion
Neighbourly urban design
Safe public places
Green spaces
Digitally connected communities

Spatial Criteria

Development opportunities offer urban areas the chance to support a more sustainable future. The built environment can be made more accessible to the ageing population, the adaptability of homes and spaces can be enhanced and assistive technology options can be incorporated into designs. And while many elements of sustainable design – such as closely integrated mixed-use developments or environments that promote walking and the use of public transport – benefit the entire population, it’s also true that they almost always promote activity and wellbeing in older people.

In fact, predicted changes in the demographic profile will have land-use and planning impacts beyond catering for the needs of an increasing number of older people. As older cohorts increase, the proportion of some age groups will contract as a proportion of the total population. This results in a proportional reduction in demand for certain land uses and facilities. The use of land previously developed to serve demographic groups that are now shrinking will need to be reconsidered (and possibly adapted) to meet the needs and demands of groups that are expanding.

Preserving the hierarchy of densities within different types of urban place (such as urban centres, neighbourhoods and urban extensions) is fundamental to ensuring that they perform to their social, economic and environmental potential. In a similar manner, the preservation of relevant densities helps to ensure that areas not as well-connected to public transport and local services do not become ‘over-developed’ in regard to their local context.

The most compact developments should therefore occur in the most sustainable locations – those which benefit from a high degree of physical and digital connectivity. The design of such compact developments is critical to their success.

Individual dwellings aimed at those requiring care should be located towards the quieter areas of a development site, with clear focal points such as trees, bird tables or views of street life. Dwellings and principal communal spaces should be orientated to ensure sunlight for part of the day, creating a balance of natural and artificial light. Ensuring green amenities are orientated to make best use of the sun will encourage residents to venture out and use outside spaces.

Buildings and Site Criteria

Improved life expectancies have resulted in a smaller proportion of the elderly being widowed. Consequently, an increasing number of older people are projected to remain married and living in couples than were able to do so in the past. While this may serve to reduce the requirement for state-administered care in some instances, as married couples are able to manage their care needs in their home, it may also increase the need for larger, care-led housing that allows couples to remain living together. It is worth noting, however, that the elderly are relatively immobile in terms of moving house. The longer the elderly can remain in couples, the more likely it is that they will be motivated and financially able to stay in the ‘family home’.

As much as 95% of the national housing stock is not fully accessible – and it is considerably challenging to retrofit existing stock so as to allow people to live independently as they age. Good design inside the home is therefore of extreme importance, irrespective of whether the primary use is as a family home or one with a care-package specifically attached or delivered. Small changes are often enough to help vulnerable groups feel more independent, providing an environment that is clearly defined, easy to navigate and feels safe.

Community Criteria

As previously stated, the ageing population is fast becoming a key consideration in community planning. Irrespective of the forecasted trend for more elderly married couples as a proportion of the population, the growth in size of the elderly population as a whole means that more elderly people are projected to be living in one-person households. It is this cohort that is particularly susceptible to relocation to communal establishments when support (health-related or otherwise) is required.

Land use may have to be reconsidered in light of such changes. Where land may previously have served a function for a narrow age-band – for example, schools, universities, sports and recreation facilities designed to serve children or young adults – adaptation may be required to allow it to serve a wider range of ages and uses.

Planning should respect projected demographics while also promoting the concept of the ‘lifetime neighbourhood’, where development provision (including both housing and community facilities) are capable of supporting all stages in the life cycle.

In rural communities, particular emphasis should be placed on accessibility through appropriate public transport provision and inclusively designed pedestrian routes, while development should include local convenience stores and other important amenities that can help to foster a sense of community. The population of rural England is ageing faster than that of urban areas and poor access to services is a key cause of socio-economic exclusion, which has strong negative impacts on the wellbeing of older people.

What follows are summary descriptions of generic urban place types, characterising and expressing their potential for sustainable development.

Urban Centres

Urban centres reflect the investment in their success that has occurred over generations. Services and employment have been located there alongside cultural facilities and transport infrastructure.

The fact that some urban areas now perform less well than is desirable makes decisions on where to locate new compact development even more sensitive – and potentially vital to future rejuvenation.


Most traditional towns in Essex developed in an outward pattern along the main radial streets. Suburbs were laid out with walking in mind and frequently combined good access to public transport with close proximity to important services such as schools and shops, with an accompanying compact residential catchment. They offered (and typically still offer) a unit of liveability that provides a good model of sustainable community living.

A neighbourhood unit is considered to be around 50 hectares within an area scribed by a circle of 400m radius. This represents a comfortable, 5-minute walking distance for most able-bodied people and is referred to in this guide as a ‘unit of sustainability’. Such a unit should ideally contain compact and varied housing stock, a variety of green space from parks to small squares and a community hub containing shops, health and learning facilities, employment opportunities and communal workspaces. Although radii of 400m and 800m represent a 5-minute and 10-minute walk respectively for most people, in practice the street system is likely to make the journey from perimeter to centre longer and more convoluted. Nevertheless, the use of a measured radius has the benefit of simplicity and includes all land with the potential for enhancing the sustainability of the location.

Neighbourhoods such as these exist in abundance in every town, although the degree to which they match the ideal model is dependent upon a number of influences – such as decisions to rationalise school and service provision or the loss of a major employer. They also represent a past investment that is capable of being exploited and enhanced in preference to abandonment and re-provision elsewhere. Most neighbourhoods contain deficiencies of one sort or another and new development provides an opportunity to help remedy this, renewing their viability and making them more sustainable in the process.

Neighbourhood Design

Neighbourhoods are places where people live, work, play and develop a sense of belonging. The design of a neighbourhood can contribute to the health and well-being of the people living there. Several aspects of neighbourhood design (such as walkability and mixed land use) can also maximise opportunities for social engagement and active travel. Neighbourhood design can impact on our day-to-day decisions and therefore have a significant role in shaping our health behaviours.

Principles for building healthy neighbourhoods:

  • Enhance neighbourhood walkability.
  • Build complete and compact neighbourhoods.
  • Enhance connectivity with safe and efficient infrastructure. 

Small Urban Infill

Opportunities exist within every town to build within small urban gaps that are not required for other purposes. At best, such development completes the continuity of frontage of a street and removes a local eyesore. The physical limitation of available site area imposes particular challenges for the designer but the advice contained within this guidance still applies. For instance, it is still possible for a single building to contain a non-residential use on the ground floor, to incorporate a rainwater harvesting system with underground storage, to have an excellent environmental performance and to accommodate biodiversity within the structure.

Large Urban Infill

Occasionally, development opportunities arise on large urban sites. These may once have been in institutional use and, provided they are at least 50 hectares in size, are capable of being developed as sustainable urban infill containing a mixed-use centre and community hub, space for employment, shared community workspaces, services, schools and a compact residential community. If a site contains buildings, their potential for retention and re-use should be examined within any Context Appraisal; there should always be a presumption towards retaining the better buildings that exist.

If less than 50 hectares in area, the development type will be determined by the ‘fit’ of the site. As with all spatial criteria scenarios, it is essential that a large urban infill site can be connected to its surroundings via a network of streets, footpaths, cycleways and green links, and that its centre is well-served by public transport.

Sites Beyond These Locations

It is important not to seek high-density development on land that is poorly connected to other places by public transport. Doing so increases the number of unnecessary journeys made by car, adding to local traffic congestion, pollution and carbon emissions. Such developments are the parts of an urban area that are least likely to become sustainable communities; in these situations it is preferable to keep densities below 50 dwellings per hectare.

Page updated: 29/07/2019

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