New Neighbourhood Utility

The study explores potential uses to re-appropriate the former washing areas associated with back to back housing to invent a new neighbourhood utility.

Group Ginger architects were approached by a land owner to come forward with a number of ideas demonstrating potential solutions for a series of sites in the residential area of Harehills, Leeds. The parcels of land available were associated with the back to back housing typology. Previously used for washing areas, toilets and refuse areas, the land became redundant as plumbing and drainage became integrated into the neighbouring houses. Our approach has looked at how these spaces might once again be utilised as a community benefit, a New Neighbourhood Utility. This paper investigates just one of the potential proposals; the pilot project addresses the future of the food axis.

The ‘food axis’ is a principal structure about which food related spaces are arranged.1 It describes the complex network we have created to purchase, consume and dispose of food. Today this axis is almost entirely contained within the family home but historically it was a vivid element of the neighbourhood. Food offers a togetherness that is more inclusive than any other activity. It is something we all share providing a natural centre for the community. Our evolving relationship with food and a renewed environmental awareness and responsibility to waste will inform the new public health paradigm. This paper will trace a history of the home, looking specifically at back to back housing in Leeds and Public Health Initiatives to propose a new neighbourhood utility.

Considering the future of the food axis we ask; can collective action transform waste and waste space into a valuable resource, adding to the quality of life of the neighbourhood, establishing a sense of community/shared activity and contributing to health benefits, food knowledge and general well-being?


The shift from rural to urban life was fuelled by the privatisation of land at the beginning of the 19thcentury. The acts of enclosure were put in place to drive farming efficiencies without which the growing cities could not be fed.2Before enclosure the fields were farmed in strips. The community lived and worked together, sharing rights to common land. Whereas the new farming model saw isolated individual properties and the loss of communal land, leaving a few large landowners and driving the less fortunate villagers to the cities.This marks a significant change in attitude from land farmed collectively for subsistence to land farmed individually for maximum yield and profit.3Over the subsequent two centuries this shift in attitude from the collective to the individual has been repeated at a variety of scales throughout a multitude of sectors with success measured by efficiency often at the cost of community and shared activity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

With the population of cities such as Leeds increasing 6 fold through the 19thcentury, the densification of the city heightened issues of health. Therefore health became a key driver of reform as the Victorians grappled with urbanisation. Furthermore housing was recognised for its detrimental impact on the health of the British working class. However at the end of the 19thcentury the government had little control over the housing sector with local councils responsible for just 1%. The majority of housing was private rent at 89% and only 10% owner-occupied.4This section identifies a number of initiatives at the scale of the city and the neighbourhood.

And at the city scale the Parks Movement made green space accessible to the masses in the heart of the urban environment. Changes in legislation from central government were crucial in allowing councils to provide more public parks with the Open Spaces Act 1877 and Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884 which prohibited use of such areas as building sites. This acquisition of land throughout urban centres came at a cost but “the most expensive plot of land converted into this purpose cannot but be a good speculation, for the health of large towns is one of the utmost importance”5. Similarly Earl of Meath implores his contemporaries to see the value of communal space at the General Architectural Congress of 1900, “if landowners will only realise that the value of building land rises in proportion to the amount of timbered open space adjoining it.”6Here the collective benefit of an asset is up against individual profit.

Waste is a relatively new phenomenon. In the first instance packaging was developed in response to the growing obsession with hygiene as knowledge of germs and food safety became understood. Just 150 years ago 90% of household waste was ash from coal fires.7The 1875 Public Health Act required every household to own a ‘dust’ bin, the origin of the term dustbin man.8This was the beginnings of a city wide infrastructure for waste disposal but the dust was not simply dumped. The dust from the coal fires was reused as a key component in brick manufacturing. Similarly within the home, food scraps such as bones or vegetable peels would be boiled up to create a stock for further meals. The peels then became feed for the pigs and the bones were sold, not given, to the rag and bone man.9Value was seen and exploited in everything, this stands in stark contrast to the throwaway society of today.

For many working class families minimal domestic cooking and washing facilities within the home forced reliance on neighbourhood amenities; utilising the local bakehouse, public baths and washhouses. The back to back housing typology formed 71% of the housing stock in Leeds in 1886.10These terraces benefitted from shared spaces which provided a number of utility functions including toilets, washing and drying areas and latterly refuse areas. This meant that people spent more time outside of the home, maximising opportunity for social interaction with neighbours on a regular basis.

Flushing toilets, mains sewers and waste collections were breakthroughs in public health. The Victorian health movement represents a preventative attitude towards healthcare where investment in the design of the home, the neighbourhood and the city could create a healthier environment to nurture a healthier community therefore reducing the number of people requiring curative healthcare in the future.




At the turn of the 20thcentury, early modernist writings questioned whether the kitchen belonged within the domestic sphere of the home at all, pointing towards a new communal. In A Modern Utopia, first published in 1905, H G Wells projects a future vision of the home “…the ordinary utopian would no more think of a special private kitchen for his dinners than he would think of a private flour mill or dairy farm.”11

Housing became recognised as an issue the government had a responsibility to respond to with the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890 and 1900 which empowered local authorities to buy land in order to develop and rent to working people at affordable cost. “The planning of a workman’s cottage is of paramount importance to the health and well-being of the community as a whole; and this, one is glad to think, is now being recognised.”12The planning of the garden city recognised food as a vital element. The fictional future of Wells was brought to life in the homes within Meadow Way Green and Homesgarth at Letchworth. These communities shared communal kitchens and common gardens for food production described by Parham as “socialised food features,”13utilising the land for the benefit of the whole rather than the individual.

However the drive for independence came to dominate 20th century design and the home became a private space for the nuclear family, a departure from the household as a community. Two opposing developments in the food axis became clear. The availability of convenience foods removed the necessity of cooking, transforming it into an activity of leisure, entertainment and performance. On the other hand the complexity of cooking is reduced through the proliferation of convenience foods leading to a disconnection between people and where our food comes from. This meant the kitchen was transformed into a symbol of wealth, devoid of almost all function. Similarly Maak speaks of the dining table as a relic of the communal household with each house owning a table surrounded by empty chairs for all but a few moments each year.14




Food has been divorced from the routine of everyday. Food has become leisure. Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City, argues that festival market places such as Borough Market are a “manifestation of our overwhelming disconnection with food in Britain not the opposite.”15It is a form of food tourism removed from daily routine. Borough draws over 70 gourmet food importers and organic farmer. London tourist association states “London’s Larder’ has tended towards more up market and exotic produce, and with prices to match.”16Our lack of food knowledge and disconnection with food production has led to the generation of 7.3 million tonnes of food per year by households in the UK for 2015.17This is the equivalent to 112.6 kg per year for each person in the UK, or just over 0.3 kg per person per day. The impact on health is equally concerning. The current condition is of increasing obesity, nutrition deprivation, and a resultant pressure on the National Health Service at the end of the cycle. It is reactionary, working to help people get better rather than the alternative of preserving health through preventative initiatives.

Many of the shared community facilities provided as part of the public health initiatives have been personalised, and moved into the private domain of the home. The home has come to encompass everything; cooking, washing and even shopping delivered to the doorstep. Consequently the sense of neighbourhood is reduced to post code real estate. The advancements in technology which have allowed for this convenient lifestyle have unwittingly contributed to social isolation, a real threat to health.

At the same time cities are intensifying, with increasing numbers of people seeking to live in the city, there is increasing pressure on space in cities. We have known for a long time that the world is not big enough for everyone to have their little bit be that; One acre and security or five acres and independence. A new aspiration is needed. In 2012 New York City turned to Micro units in an attempt to solve the housing shortage and accommodate the increasing number of singles.18Developers in London are prototyping micro living; 21smq for a one bedroom flat, 40% of the size of the standard accommodation.19This reduction squeezes existing space standards and acknowledges essential use. However this vision responds to the drive for independence and rejects the benefits of sharing amenities as a collective.

The final elements to consider are the emerging trends of the 21stcentury. Health as a popular culture movement has raised it to aspirational status. Although this is frequently exploited through the commodification of health, as an aspiration it is a powerful tool for change. Similarly the Hipster and Craft movement places an emphasis on production. Furthermore there is a generational shift towards greater sense of responsibility for the environment.



The increasing pressure on space in cities is leading to a new communal.20Combining private retreat with considered communal space, the new neighbourhood model returns to working together. Our future model seeks to reintegrate the food axis into daily ritual by looking at how some spaces that have retreated into the privacy of the home could be replicated with generosity in the common shared domain. Not as a replacement but offering a choice, in essence providing Maak’s dining table as a symbol of the new communal neighbourhood. Each home will have access to a table surrounded by chairs occupied by a changing community of actors working collectively.

Our study engages with an area of 96 back to back terraces in Harehills, an inner city area approximately one mile north east of Leeds City Centre. Official Government figures have listed Harehills as – in the top 5% most deprived of England’s electoral wards. Unemployment in Harehills is at 9%, compared to less than 4% across the City of Leeds.21The twelve streets once benefitted from twelve communal areas which provided for washing and toilets. As plumbing has moved inside the home these spaces have become redundant and subsequently been privatised. These spaces are left to become anti-social, health hazards; ripe for miss-use. Our client bought the sites at auction for just £1500 to take private control however his interests are community minded. The twelve sites are unfit for conventional development due to the property values in Harehills, making them excellent candidates for appropriation. We have explored what common purpose these spaces might provide which would benefit the community, enhancing their daily existence and offering something that is not sustainable in a private context but which collectively can be justified.

We believe that collective action can transform waste and waste space into a valuable resource, offering environmental, health, economic and social benefits to a deprived neighbourhood. This pilot scheme for the new neighbourhood utility combines waste disposal, energy generation and food production. This combination can provide the full closed-loop food to-energy-to-food cycle. At the same time providing a new social centre for the neighbourhood where interaction is based on production rather than consumption.

In this case the New Neighbourhood Utility will provide an anaerobic digester to process organic waste, creating a nutrient rich fertiliser and bio gas. Managing food waste locally helps to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste miles. The fertilizer can be used in the green house and adjacent allotments, providing the potential to grow food all year round, increasing community access to healthy organic produce. Growing food locally is an important educational tool to increase food knowledge and health awareness of diet and nutrition. It can also be used for urban greening programmes to beautify urban areas and contribute to better air quality. Biogas is released during anaerobic digestion and captured for use as a clean fuel which can be used to power CHP (combined heat and power) units, which generates electricity and heat. Energy production could be further enhanced with Photovoltaic panels in the green house roof to provide a further source of electrical power. This power could be sold back to the national grid to offset energy bills of those community members that are part of the cooperative group. Alternatively this power can be utilised to charge an electric car made available to the community via a community car club scheme. By sharing the use of a sustainable electric vehicle, overall car ownership and costs of living can be reduced. There are few areas where the community can come together to help each other, the community room would provide a space for group activities, such as after school clubs, crèche, music clubs etc.

This proposal builds on the work of LEAP (Local Energy ADventure Partnership) micro AD, a cross sector partnership developing micro anaerobic digestion. Their pilot system at Camley Street Natural Park near Kings Cross demonstrates a vision of sustainability and community wellbeing.22

If we are genuinely able to introduce a new network of neighbourhood utilities which benefit the community there would be an opportunity to explore grant funding for the initial capital costs. However on- going maintenance costs must be met through the proceeds generated through operation, such that the new social enterprise is not reliant on grant support.



Change is born of crisis. The state intervened to provide housing and town planning policies when slum conditions could no longer be ignored. The National Health Service was introduced after World War II to address the needs of the nation, healthcare was no longer the privilege of the wealthy. Today the NHS is overburdened and heading towards crisis. There is an urgent need to pursue a more sustainable form of living for all, not just the privileged. This can be secured through design and policy strategies determined to prevent health issues rather than provide medication for the symptoms which result from neglect. Built Environment professionals have a role to play.


We hope to influence and envisage a future where;

· The State will endorse the NNU model on the basis that; the Community demonstrate the ability to organise, manage and operate.

· The Food Axis and other communal public health initiatives are included in the Planning of Cities and supported in development policy

· The State incentivises community infrastructure

· There is a Choice to participate – an opportunity to share in the collective, become an active citizen – this is not exclusive but neither is it an obligation


“How can architects step out of the passive role of actors who sit around like private detectives waiting for a client to come through the door, and become active city builders”23

We respond to this challenge by taking responsibility to move beyond hired help. We are engaging in non-violent direct action to change material conditions directly rather than through local governmental politics, which are perceived to have been inadequate. Direct action is a valuable methodology in social movements where people work together, where all share responsibility for future wellbeing. Examples include; Reclaim the Streets and Incredible edible, radical community building in action. As such The New Neighbourhood Utility for Harehills Leeds is a pilot project, a maverick client, a sympathetic architect and an unsuspecting community … who knows where this will end….