Whereas most people are aware of what is loosely termed the ‘natural environment’ and its principal characteristics, they may not be so familiar with the term ‘built environment’.
The built environment is the result of human intervention in the natural physical world, where places with different characteristics and identities are created, and the means to keep them functional and interdependent are established . It includes everything in our towns and rural areas that is ‘built’ - all types of building, such as houses, shops, offices, farms, factories, schools, churches, together with civil engineering works such as roads, Airports, bridges and harbours.
The built environment of a particular place will include a mixture of these components, which will range in quality from the mundane to the sublime, from jewels of craftsmanship to the shoddiest of temporary structures, from buildings used by the earliest inhabitants to the latest housing project or office block. Individually and collectively these component are embodiment of the spiritual, social, political, and aesthetic values of the societies that created them, as well as result of human need.
Most people spend their time in or around buildings - even in rural areas, and on holiday - yet it is remarkable the degree to which they may fail to appreciate how the built environment involves and colours their daily lives. It exerts influences upon us that are explicit and evident, yet also subtle and difficult to discern. These range from the negative effects of bad housing or the damaging impact of energy-inefficient buildings, to the positively uplifting effects of an aesthetically pleasing collection of buildings performing useful social or economic functions.
Perhaps because change generally occurs so slowly in our built environment, most of it becomes the passive backdrop to our lives. Yet its importance in shaping our attitudes is enormous. We absorb it and it becomes part of us. We need only think back to our early memories to recognise how the characteristics of places strongly impact our perception of how life was, or note the way in which a scent or a piece of architecture can transport us back in time to a place that was special.
What we find in three dimensions around us is witness to the aspirations, means, cultural values, trading patterns and technologies of those who built in earlier times. It is therefore imperative that the actions we take today to alter, destroy or create a new built environment, be informed by a sense of the past. We should understand how the places in which we live, work and play were created, and appreciate what is good about them. Learning to value what we find around us, and developing the disposition to build on what is good or improve on what is shoddy, is at the heart of any vision for the future.
‘Community’ has become a byword these days for any initiative claiming to be socially responsive, whether in health, education or the physical environment. In terms of housing and the built environment, the community label seems to have emerged at the point where the great mass housing projects of the post hurricane era began to falter in their promise to deliver the brave new visions of those who had created them.
The notion of ‘community participation’ in planning and neighbourhood renewal then followed. The foundation for this belief being that if people were given the opportunity to express their needs and desires, then empowerment would result.
So, are these ideas and ideals still as relevant today, when our traditional patterns of settlement and social relations have changed beyond recognition, and consumerism and individualism now prevail?
Well, perhaps more than ever, although it may be participation of a different type which emerges. A participation based on a cultivation of enthusiasm for the built environment as a dynamic and vital thing, where less time is spent passively pouring over plans in church halls at consultation stage, and more spent actively engaging individuals and groups within the community with their own neighbourhoods and surroundings.