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How placemaking can transform social housing

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Image courtesy of ARM

It takes a village

With housing affordability continuing to be a pressing issue in Australia, the Big Housing Build (BHB) funding is rolling out across Victoria. It is an important time to address the ongoing challenges and stigmas surrounding social and affordable housing and how best we can move toward a brighter, more regenerative future.

So who are we building for?

It might go against our common perception, but the people we see sleeping rough on the streets of Melbourne are only 5% of the homeless population: the highest percentage (36%) are actually hidden away in severely overcrowded dwellings. 58% of homeless people in Victoria are female and 14% are under 12 years of age. So often, it is a single mother escaping family violence that finds themselves homeless. It is no surprise that homelessness and poor housing have significant impacts on health and wellbeing.

It has been shown that children in poor households are three times more likely to suffer from adult poverty, due to lack of resources, unstable conditions, stress, low-quality environments and more. This shows that maybe we need to think about more than just buildings in the Big Housing Build.

It is great that the $5.3 billion toward the BHB in Victoria has occurred, but how are we addressing the challenges of homelessness and social housing within this? Currently, the BHB is infrastructure-focused, which is an important part of the puzzle of housing, but not the complete answer. It is one thing to give someone a roof over their head, another to provide them with the pathway and support to integrate within their community and call somewhere home.

As a community we need a shared value and participation in creating place which has been lacking in the sector…. We have lost the sense of giving people agency in place.

‘Business as usual’ within social housing at times can reference multi-generational poverty, unsafe and unhealthy environments and divided communities. Lack of agency and infrastructure focus has strengthened the NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) belief in Victoria, further excluding residents from the community and increasing stigma around developments.

With this in mind, the BHB needs to provide a switch in larger community thinking and cause everyone to see that social housing developments will create a quality of amenity and community benefit. It is time for a regenerative lens to guide this new wave of social housing.

How can a place approach help?

Placemaking can be a key part of ensuring that the infrastructure built in the BHB is successful in reducing homelessness and stigma, whilst empowering residents to live their best possible life. Placemaking is more than the physical ‘hardware’ of place; it is the ‘software’, e.g. the connections, people, support, community and rituals of place. It is these intangible things that I think of when someone mentions a village.

To work towards these intangibles, placemaking can facilitate local residents, communities and stakeholders to work together for the best possible outcome. It can improve social connection which has been shown to have a substantial improvement on health. It can also empower residents and boost self-esteem and identity. Ultimately, placemaking identifies people as the heart of place. Gilbert flagged the importance of people-centric approach to place and the potential for current issues to be perpetuated if the current model is not refined:

We need a ‘people and place’ approach over ‘return on investment’ approach. If people are not in the DNA of the Big Housing Build, we are going to go back to business as usual.

Gilbert Rochecouste, Creative Director & Founder, Village Well

There is substantial research that shows the effects of placemaking have a large positive impact on the livelihood of residents. Along with this, the economics of a successful place says we will save money on healthcare, security, and maintenance.

So if it is better for people and the economy, why doesn’t this happen? For the most part, it comes down to a lack of education and framework. From what research has found, and the experience in projects below, I would argue a people-centred approach to social housing is what is needed. It could be the key to change the trajectory of the BHB and future development toward a more positive and sustainable future.

Village Well has 30 years of experience in placemaking, and has worked to bring placemaking to many housing developments in Victoria and across the world. The Family Supportive Housing development by Launch Housing in partnership with Uniting is the latest in our projects.

Launch Dandenong

The Launch Family Supportive Housing in Dandenong is designed to provide long-term accommodation to single, female-headed families. Construction started in 2021 the project is set to be completed in June this year.

Image courtesy of ARM

Village Well was engaged to do Stakeholder Engagement and an Activity Plan for the Dandenong Family Supportive Housing. We used our 5Ps framework to guide this important work. Here is how it is being applied:

  • Physical environment: We are using a Trauma-informed lens to create healing and encouraging environments. We recognise that many of the residents will be coming from traumatic experiences, and will struggle to engage with society fully. We are therefore recommending activations and offerings that will allow for ‘soft’ connections, allowing for gradual engagement on their terms. By working with places such as the local library, the residents can have a soft introduction to library books on site, and maybe have a chat with a visiting librarian on a day when they visit. This could then make a resident feel more comfortable to take the trip to the library, where they can start to integrate with their local community.

  • People: The women and children that will be the residents in this project are at the forefront of our recommendations, but we recognise that the staff and community will be key to providing residents with the support they need to live their best life. After all, it takes a village to help someone get back on their feet. In the pipeline for this project are meetings with the onsite staff to introduce them to their local service providers and to work on some team values on how they will take the project forward to best support and empower residents.

  • Program: We are working to offer residents with connections to the best and most relevant services in the area. Village Well fostered relationships with about 45 local service providers working in Dandenong, each sharing their insights from working in the Dandenong community and contributing ideas to the activation of the housing. From this, we feel we know the offerings and systems of services in Dandenong well and can make informed decisions when recommending which services Launch Housing will partner with on-site.

  • Product: We not only want to house women, we want to empower them to take control of their lives. In light of this, we have ensured that we have relationships with local services that provide education and employment services as well as financial and legal help. Activities on-site will be made to make women find their voice and encourage them to strive for what they want.

  • Planet: Connection to nature has been found to help heal and improve one’s mental health. In recognition of this, we recommended there be a possibility for residents to engage with a community garden and for planting to be prevalent on site. Gardening can increase their connection to sustainable practices, whilst greenery present on-site may help residents feel safer and more capable quicker.

This project is ongoing, and we recognise the importance of providing much-needed community engagement, which has been a missing piece in this project. Wider community engagement is an important step to not only increase acceptance amongst locals, but can also be key in changing perceptions of social housing and how it can be an asset to their community.

Launch Housing is taking bounding leaps in the right direction, and their inclusion of placemaking will increase the positive impacts this development has on their lives. A key aspect of this is that once the construction is finished, placemaking allows the residents and users to adapt their environment to suit their changing needs.

Our top 3 placemaking for social housing recommendations

1. Put people first

Before we use the 5.3 billion dollars in developments for the BHB, we need to start with a people-based approach. This will help build long term resilience, whilst increasing the livelihood and wellbeing of people in need.

2. It is time for a new model of governance, curation and management

By providing a model of curation and management, staff are able to engage residents, provide chances for healing, learning, engagement and empowerment. Placemaking does not finish when the building is complete; it is an ongoing, adaptive process that needs facilitation and curation.

3. It takes a village

If we look at great villages, their success comes from community members who are empowered to look after their place and share their gifts. If a neighbour in a village was struggling, the whole community would band together to help. We need to provide the DNA of a village; with all the support, networks and opportunities that come with them in order to change the course of social housing.

Emma Hall is a talented Placemaker at Village Well. She is passionate about the creation of places that contribute to the health and wellbeing of communities.


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