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Landscapes for living

St William has been using a fresh approach to design that's all about landscape-led developments, an approach that they are so passionate about delivering that they are creating a poem for each new development, to capture the spirit of the place.

Taking the landscape as the foundation for the design of your development seems like a perfectly sensible and even obvious thing to do, but St William could easily claim to be a pioneer of this approach in the UK. As Alison Dowsett, managing director of St William, explains: "It's a simple idea - leading with the landscape design, making that part of the process from the outset. Yet that's a unique position."

The essence is to see how new buildings would fit into the landscape, not how you can manipulate or change the landscape to fit around the buildings.

"What we're doing is to landscape the spaces we have and only then see how best buildings might fit into that. Very often the way developers work is the other way around, which doesn't always use the land to its best potential. You end up with spaces that feel left over."

St William's future holds many such design challenges, with 17,000 homes on 33 brownfield sites across London and the South East planned over the next 15 years. That's 279 acres of development over diverse sites such as Fulham, Highbury, and Battersea at the premium end of the market, and Beckton, Taplow, and Borehamwood at the more affordable.

"There's a huge demand for affordable housing in London," Dowsett points out. "We want locals to be able to buy, but also want to encourage people to these locations from further afield. In some instances, we'll be building 2,000 new homes on a single site. We'll be creating entire new villages and new communities, so we need to get it right." 

This is where the landscape-led approach becomes essential, as each site presents unique challenges and demands. Many of the brownfield sites are home to former gasworks that include listed Victorian structures, which need to be preserved for posterity in balance with the demand for new homes in the capital.

It's this thoughtful approach to the physical landscape that naturally shifts the focus to more human-centric design. So often in the past, housing developments were built with grand ideals and concepts but ended up as soulless, impersonal spaces, where basic ideas such as community and fluidity were afterthoughts.

Thankfully, the quality of design and architecture in residential developments has greatly increased in more recent years, but St William's landscape-led approach could help drive further change towards creating better places to live.

"Taking a landscaping-first approach is essentially all about creating a sense of place," explains Dowsett. "That's what people feel most comfortable with, and safest in; it's what they gravitate to. All too often, developments focus on the material side of things such as what the development is made of, rather than how it feels, what it's like to live in, or what is likely to happen day to day in the space that's created."

While this design philosophy is still relatively novel in the industry, it has its own venerable heritage, originating in the famously innovative and design-led Scandinavian nations. The famous Danish architect Jan Gehl helped inspire St William when he neatly summarised this approach as "first life, then spaces, then buildings."

All this can easily start to sound a bit high-minded, but there are functional and practical benefits to applying the landscape-led philosophy. Issues like drainage and topography are addressed at the beginning of a development, not tackled when problems arise long after completion as is so often the case.

More consideration is given to how people will move through the spaces; the placement of entrances and exits; the width of paths to facilitate people stopping and chatting without blocking thoroughfares; planting to reduce pollution from local transport; smaller building footprints to allow for more intimate outdoor spaces rather than single giant parks; even how buildings will throw shadows and stand in relation to the passage of the sun.

"Working with sunlight sounds really obvious, but focusing on those spaces where there's the best light, and putting a playground or café there is really important, especially with high density buildings," says Dowsett.

The benefits of creating pleasant living spaces are clear, but in the long run Dowsett is looking for more concrete evidence through commissioning independent research. She hopes to prove that the St William approach not only works commercially, but also increases the wellbeing of residents. St William's inaugural development, Prince of Wales Drive in Battersea, sold 100% of its first two buildings within six months.

"At the moment it's anecdotal, but it's an approach that certainly feels like it makes sense, and resonates with anyone now working this way," says Dowsett. Changing the perception of property development, which can sometimes be seen as impersonal or indifferent, is clearly a desirable aim, but taking an approach that genuinely improves the lives of the people who live in them is surely the highest aim of all. 

Homes and London Magazine, Landscapes for living, Prince of Wales Drive

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