Blog: 5 February 2020Does size matter? Recognising the value of small sites

Stuart Bishop

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Stuart Bishop

Architectural Director

Edinburgh office

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When you look around Scotland’s inner-city urban areas, you can’t help but notice how many contain small pockets of undeveloped brownfield sites.  For years many of these sites have either been overlooked, only considered as part of larger land packages, or they have become derelict spaces associated with anti-social behaviour.

Local Authorities and developers across Scotland who are who are targeting ambitious affordable housing delivery numbers often understandably aim for ‘lower hanging fruit’ – the bigger, edge-of-city development areas where volume can be delivered and efficiencies of scale achieved.  In our work with development partner Robertson Partnership Homes, we have worked with both The City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) and Fife Council (FC),  to provide  a different solution to building housing; a solution that also brings significant added social value to existing neighbourhoods.  This is to develop the often-overlooked small gap sites that are nestled within existing neighbourhoods. 

In our work with Edinburgh Council, several such sites were identified that were gaping holes in communities where there is little incentive for private developers to invest in new development.  Often, these sites lie in areas where there are social and economic challenges and investing in these sites, despite their size, can help reinvigorate these areas and become a powerful catalyst for further growth.  Using the spaces for affordable housing goes a step further, helping families and communities maintain support networks, and stay and grow together while making the areas more attractive to future investment.

There has rarely been a time post-war where this investment has been more necessary.  Meeting the high demand for affordable housing in Edinburgh is essential and requires a variety of development solutions.  Developing small challenging sites can be more expensive without the economies of scale but they undoubtedly bring added regenerative value to these existing communities over the long term.

Derelict brownfield sites, when left undeveloped, can allow for anti-social behaviour and through our community consultations in Edinburgh we have seen up close the damage that this can cause to a neighbourhood.  Giving them new life helps to restore the pride and reputation within these neighbourhoods.  CEC’s initiative, through their 21St Century Homes Small Sites Programme, alongside delivery partner Robertson has developed seven of these sites across Edinburgh.  With the final site nearing completion, we are already starting to see the positive impact they can have both in terms of contributing to housing targets, but perhaps more importantly in healing troublesome gap sites in existing neighbourhoods

Design quality has been of particular importance, given the unique constraints of each site.  Their small size and close proximity to other buildings and infrastructure, meant that for each site the designs had to be carefully tailored.  Designing contextually and with sensitivity, in addition to fully engaging with the local community to understand their needs and concerns, was crucial in ensuring the developments integrates well into the existing neighbourhood fabric.

The positive experience of these sites supports the notion that small sites should not be overlooked by councils and affordable housing developers.  Healing wounds in communities, while also giving people the homes they need, is the perfect justification for investment, and we hope that many more local authorities will follow City of Edinburgh Council’s and Fife Council’s example.

Images: Paul Zanre Photography

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Brownfield, Scottish Housing, Affordable Housing, Communities, Design