Toni Gray poses with the build team developing her co-designed home.

David Griffiths

With Co-Design, Residents “Do Housing on Their Own Terms”

It’s crunch time for many of Bristol’s post-war housing estates. Could the city’s radical co-design projects go beyond lip service to deliver regeneration at scale?

Story by Sean Morrison and Ella Jessel

Photography by David Griffiths

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This story is adapted from The Bristol Cable’s new Future of Cities series, a project exploring solutions to the major problems facing cities, from Bristol, U.K., and beyond.

Toni Gray and her three-year-old daughter live in a bungalow in the back garden of her parents’ council house. It was built as part of a radical housing project in south Bristol recognised for its co-design approach.

The 25-year-old, who had been living with her mom and dad while on Bristol City Council’s housing waiting list, had a say on her new home’s size and layout, and helped the building firm put it together before moving in in June.

“We sat in the garden and figured out what we wanted… We drew it up and I had a lot of input in all of it,” Gray says. The bungalow has two bedrooms, a bathroom and an open-plan kitchen and living area. “It’s great because I needed my independence and space, but mum is still close by. It’s much better for the little one.”

Gray’s was the first of two new council homes to be built in people’s gardens in Knowle West – a low-density, 1930s council estate – as part of a pilot run by community interest company We Can Make.

The company, which is now working with the council on plans for 14 more homes, uses a co-design approach to development that it says empowers communities “to do housing on their own terms.”

With the demand for council homes growing fast, the local authority is ramping up its house building efforts. But the city’s brownfield sites are limited; meanwhile, some existing council homes are in desperate need of repairs.

A shrinking budget only adds to the complexity of the problem. As does residents’ low level of trust in regeneration, which to some has become a byword for the displacement of communities.

If done right, co-designed projects — where developers work with, rather than for the people who will live in the homes being built or refurbished — is an approach that can help maintain trust with communities, and deliver good-quality homes.

In other cities co-design is crossing into mainstream development and councils are trialing the approach as they attempt to get residents on board with major estate regeneration. So as Bristol City Council considers rebuilding and upgrading its social housing – under plans unveiled in 2020 that have so far failed to get off the ground – can co-design help it create the city’s council estates of the future?

Melissa Mean, far left, with Toni Gray and her 3-year-old daughter.

Crunch time for post-war estates

Gray and her parents opted into the We Can Make scheme by volunteering their back garden. The council-owned land was then transferred to a community land trust on a long-term lease, and the plans for the site were drawn up according to an evolving ‘community design code’.

The code is being developed collaboratively with the Knowle West estate’s residents. Its aim is to speed up the process of gaining planning approval, while ensuring the homes being built work for the local neighborhood.

Melissa Mean, We Can Make’s managing director, says the group’s process of “gentle, opt-in densification,” is about truly understanding community assets and learning what local people can bring to a development.

“With this, we’re able to bring in relationships of trust, understanding… That’s when the real magic of co-design happens,” says Mean. “We held very, very early engagement with the community about what kinds of things are welcome here.

“Communities can feel a bit under siege with a development just kind of put to them,” Mean says. “Generally, they get asked to be involved quite late in a process and it can feel a bit like a tick-box exercise. What’s different here is we’re asking things as a community and trying things out.”

But the scale of We Can Make is dwarfed by the number of people living in social housing in need of repairs, or still stuck on the waiting list. Almost 18,500 people are on Bristol City Council’s housing waiting list, and more than 1,000 are in temporary accommodation waiting for somewhere suitable to live.

Under Bristol City Council’s ‘Project 1000’ initiative, it’s aiming to build 1,000 affordable homes a year by 2024. The majority of homes in the new build program are on brownfield and derelict sites.

The local authority’s attention, however, is also turning to its existing estates.

The council owns 28,000 properties, including 62 high-rises and 450 low-rise blocks. The scale of the challenge to maintain and modernize this council housing – which has faced tenant complaints of poor conditions, and has over a dozen estates requiring major upgrades – so it’s fit for the future, while getting residents on board, is huge.

Under plans for an “ambitious estate regeneration” program unveiled in 2020, the council said it would identify estates most urgently in need of regeneration to make them low-carbon, low-energy and safe. Some homes could be demolished, it said at the time.

Since then, while some estates that were deemed to be among the poorest-performing have had external upgrades carried out, the program hasn’t got off the ground. In fact, the council hasn’t embarked on a major housing estate regeneration project for two decades.

Involving residents in major regeneration schemes might feel like a mammoth task. But there are tried and tested examples of how to go about scaling up co-design across an entire estate. Bristol could look to projects such as north London’s award-winning Packington Estate, which involved existing residents in its major rebuild.

London’s Packington Estate involved existing residents in a major rebuild.

‘People live on these estates, they know what works’

In 2003, Jan Durbridge returned from holiday to a letter explaining her flat on the Packington Estate was structurally unsafe and facing demolition. The estate, near Angel, was built in the 1970s by Islington Council using the same construction method as Ronan Point, an east London tower block that partially collapsed after a gas explosion, killing four people.

With buildings ruled unsafe, residents had two options: strengthen the existing buildings or demolish all 538 homes and rebuild them, in addition to 300 new private units. The estate’s tenants and leaseholders formed the Packington Reference Group (PRG) and took the “unanimous decision to pull it down,” says Durbridge.

But to pay for the rebuild, Islington Council had to transfer the estate to new owners. So the PRG met with interested landlords and drew up a wishlist of improvements. “Old Packington had been described as a sink estate. I don’t think it was, but it certainly had problems,” Durbridge recalls.

The old estate’s inward-looking layout encouraged anti-social behavior, which meant a top ask from residents was to reinstate the site’s original Victorian street pattern. Tenants asked for the prioritization of social housing over the 300 private homes cross-subsidising the scheme. Traditional brick and block construction, spacious flats and balconies that could accommodate a table were also on the wishlist.

“The residents didn’t want to get shipped up to the north end of the site next to the road,” explains Kaye Stout, the architect at Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE) who led the regeneration’s design from 2009. “Our team said the first phase is next to the canal, let’s put all the residents there because, frankly, that will mean we will win.”

Not all the bidders were so astute. The selection day was “illuminating,” recalls Durbridge, with residents taken aback at a proposal to put a fake canal through the center of the site and another that squeezed in so many homes the blocks were almost touching. “What they presented made you wonder if they had been in the same room as you.”

Ultimately, large housing association Hyde and PTE won the contract, and they set up a shadow estate board with a design sub group. It took 12 years to build, eventually completing in 2019. While not everything on the wishlist made it through, on the “big things” Hyde delivered, Durbridge says.

Councils will usually take decisions privately on how many homes a regeneration will include, and which type of housing should occupy the site’s prime land, as these factors directly impact on a scheme’s financial viability. Packington’s status as an estate in transition between owners played a part in the project’s success, presenting a rare opportunity for residents to step in and influence the scheme’s direction.

The results are testament to what can be done if residents are allowed into the process. As Durbridge says: “People live on these estates, they know what works and what doesn’t work. It’s very arrogant that people think they know what’s best for you.”

Right wrongs, repair trust

Awareness about the marginalization of council tenants’ voices has grown since the 2017 Grenfell Fire in West London saw residents’ repeated fire safety warnings ignored.

Against this backdrop, councils’ use of co-design as a regeneration ‘tool’ is rising, suggesting an effort to right past wrongs and repair trust. But experts fear co-design is sometimes used as lip-service to resident engagement.

“It’s become a buzzword,” says Hana Loftus, an architect and planner with extensive co-design expertise. “Ultimately, it’s not handing over or sharing power that meaningfully.”

A co-design approach fits naturally with the U.K.’s community-led housing sector. One example is Bristol Community Land Trust’s 12-home Fishponds Road project, where residents completed the homes’ fit-outs themselves. Its second larger project in Lockleaze adopts a similar “self-finish” approach.

There are many reasons co-design on large social housing projects is hard, Loftus says. Among them are local politics, a lack of resources and disillusionment from previous, failed regeneration attempts. The most fundamental, perhaps, is reconciling responsibilities to existing tenants and to building homes for the thousands of people sitting on council waiting lists, or in overcrowded temporary accommodation.

Experimental projects like We Can Make in Knowle West and London’s Packington Estate show that working with local people can build trust and housing fit for the future. Loftus describes how at its best co-design can deliver more than that, becoming a “process of empowerment.”

“Communities have a huge amount of know-how and creativity, and we’ve got to better tap into that,” says Mean, whose We Can Make project is expecting to build another four council homes in Knowle West by next spring. “That’s where new ideas are going to come from. And we definitely need some new ideas… The housing crisis isn’t going to be fixed by ‘business as usual.’”

The Bristol Cable is a pioneering grassroots community-led media cooperative based in the City of Bristol, U.K. Follow its new Future of Cities series, which will cover solutions to housing, the built environment and access to nature.

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Sean Morrison and Ella Jessel are reporters for The Bristol Cable.

David Griffiths is a photographer in Bristol.

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