Common Sense Design Can Set Kids Free

When I am giving talks and lectures, in the questions at the end of the session, I am often asked what is the greatest attribute of a designer and a creative mind. I know that for me and my design partner Gerardine, it has been common sense.


When asked what is my greatest achievement and design I always seem to come up with moments in the design process that revolve around common sense decisions. At HemingwayDesign we believe that design is for the common good and that design thinking can help to solve most challenges that society faces with a core philosophy of aiming to “improve things that matter in life”. It is the process of “design thinking” where we employ our human nature to use common sense. 

In 2001 when we first started to design housing estates I remember a meeting where the eureka moment about common sense came to the fore. 

When I wrote the infamous article in the Independent about how most mass market housing in the UK was uninspiring and not fit for purpose, the housebuilder Wimpey, approached us to put our design skills where our mouths were. This led to us being given the chance to design a 780 unit housing development: The Staiths South Bank in Gateshead. We had no experience of designing affordable housing but we had many years of being brought up and living in low cost housing.

Looking back to our own childhoods some of our best memories revolved around “playing out”. Gerardine is one of 5 sisters brought up is a “two up two down” workers cottage in Padiham, Lancashire. Hers was a home where the small back yard opened onto the “rec”, a grassed recreation space that provided the venue for play and parties. From the “rec” it was a few yards to the allotment where Gerardine learnt how to grow veg and flowers, and developed a knowledge and passion for plants that has really helped the landscape side of her career as well as giving her a healthy and rewarding hobby. From the house I was born in Morecambe, to Queens Park Flats in Blackburn with its wonderful landscape and sports facilities to our home on a new estate in Blackburn, I always had space to kick a football and mark out a mini cricket strip. Sport has since been a constant companion and source of relaxation for me as well as allowing me to share and further develop the passion with my four children who have all gained confidence and friends through their sporting activities. Sport has helped them stay fit and healthy and they have learnt so much about striving to win and learning to lose graciously and about the importance of “team” through sport. Through having outside space where they could build dens and just “lose themselves” they have all grown up to be creative and active. 

When we sat and talked about what was important about home we quickly discovered that we had never bought a house but had always bought a place. It had always been the location that came before the actual property itself. We had always considered if the locale in terms of connectivity, amenities and ambience were suitable for our lifestyle and aspirations, was suitable. After determining the suitability of the locale, we would then look for a property. When we got talking to friends and family it was clear and obvious that this was the case for just about everyone. We started to find out that this philosophy of “placemaking”, where the place came before the architecture was delivered. It was common sense, and human nature to understand that your home had to be in a place where you could survive. For our ancestors there would have been no point having a nice dry cave if it wasn’t in reach of food sources and water. So despite pressure from Wimpey to show them the houses we were designing our common sense told us to change the order of doing things. After all I had been writing about housing estates being built in soulless environments in places they should never have been built. 

From then on in, the process of identifying existing practices that flew squarely in the face of common sense became de rigueur. 

We drew on our own experience of an active outdoors childhood and the joy that we were having with our children through being fortunate to be able to afford a large garden to make the bold statement of designing the play and recreation spaces before designing the houses. This nearly got us kicked off the project , Wimpey hadn’t heard anything like it. One of the first things at The Staiths we wanted to do was to build play areas that were challenging, creative and far more exciting than a few chickens on springs and a “health and safety” approved climbing frame. We showed the council play officer an example of an exciting play area that we had come across in a wonderful development in Freiberg, Germany, made simply from old trees that were left in their natural state for kids to balance on and a generous helping of sand. We wanted play areas to encourage “free range kids”. I remember the council saying that they loved our concept of “free range kids” but couldn’t countenance a play area with sand all over the ground. This wasn’t about the danger of dogs and cats soiling the sand but another very strange reason was given. The council play officer proceeded to say that “Babies will crawl around the sand and eat it”. “But that isn’t a problem”, I replied. “We can replace it; sand is only £1.99 a bag at the local DIY store”. I then proceeded to search on the web for “Child eats sand and dies”. Try it – it’s not something that throws up any obvious returns, but common sense had already told me that. 

We had a much more worrying run in with the local Police, who have a say in planning permission based on their “Secured by Design” initiative. We had the idea to deliver “home zones” (streets designed for pedestrians, children playing and cyclists). Rather than build driveways, we planned to put the parking around the side of homes, along the gable ends. In doing this, we believed the streets would become more animated, the community would pass each other more in the streets and it would be inherently safer and friendlier. The police didn’t agree saying that the cars would get broken into. I said that I was more interested in my kids safety than that of the contents of my car, to which the policeman replied "but you have got that wrong, once they have broken into your car they will be back to assault your kids". This sounded preposterous to me and I also had a hunch that modern technology, such as central locking and micro chips in car music systems that rendered them useless when removed, must have had an impact on car crime numbers. 

I was bang on. By simply checking on the Home Offices Crime Statistics website I was able to show how dramatic the decreases in car crime had been. We had turned accepted thinking on its head and that opened up an avenue for real change. The physical design process was easy. We were using common sense.

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