University of Reading: Award For Architecture Project That Revealed Neighborhood’s Hidden Gems

An innovative project that pinpointed what residents of a Reading neighbourhood value most about where they live has won an architectural award.

Architects at the University of Reading surveyed residents of the Orts Road Estate and Newtown in east Reading in 2019 to help produce a report mapping its landmarks and assets that provided social value – something that is hard to define and often undervalued by often undervalued by local authorities, planners and developers during developments.

The Mapping Eco Social Assets project was today (Thursday 19 January) named the winner of the Cities and Community category in the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) President’s Awards for Research 2020.

Professor Flora Samuel, of the School of Architecture at the University of Reading, and principal investigator of the project, said: “The social value of neighbourhoods has always been difficult to define, making it hard for architects to understand what impact their designs have on the community.

“Our approach engages the community in helping create a map to lay out in a clear and visual way the undervalued or hidden assets that most benefit them, and why. Responding to this feedback will help architects develop happier, healthier and more engaged communities, and provide tailored support to empower people to overcome local challenges.”

The study of Orts Road and Newtown was carried out with Reading colleague Dr Eli Hatleskog, other Reading students as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme, and was supported by Reading Borough Council.

The Orts Road Estate and Newtown are multicultural communities, made up of a mixture of young and old residents and families in both privately-owned and social housing. The two areas are split by a political ward boundary line, however the researchers argued that they share many similarities and hence could be viewed as one neighbourhood.

Researchers invited residents to a workshop which asked them to discuss what places and features in their neighbourhoods made them feel proud, connected and active, as well as what they thought would improve the area.

Their comments were annotated onto a map, illustrating clearly the types of social value provided by different areas.

The report highlighted the importance, and potential for better preservation or enhancement, of natural features like parks and the Kennet and Thames riverfronts, and even spaces between buildings as undervalued spots for people to meet and chat. Blakes Weir, Orts Road Green and the library were among other social value hotspots named by residents.

It also showed people appreciated schools, religious buildings, community centres and pubs as places for socialising and providing a sense of belonging, and revealed a common desire for more recreational facilities and activities.

The project has been cited as best practice in a Greater London Authority ‘Insights’ paper, and the University of Reading won Knowledge Transfer Partnership funding alongside design firm Stantec in summer 2020.

The study used the Social Value Toolkit for Architecture developed by a team of architects led by Professor Samuel, aimed at making it easier for architects to demonstrate and evaluate the impact of neighbourhood designs on people and communities.