The shortage of affordable, sustainable housing is rightly grabbing the headlines, but we need to pay attention to the spaces between the homes if we want to create truly sustainable communities, as young people from leafy Northamptonshire to down-town Istanbul are keen to tell us. Isn't it time we took their views more seriously, asks Melanie Thompson of Get Sust!

Planning is undoubtedly a contentious issue, but it is thankfully rare that planning decisions spark riots in the way that the proposed redevelopment of the urban Gazi Park adjoining Taksim Square in Central Istanbul has done. Given the tragic loss of life and ongoing violence in Turkey, it may seem trite to link the Gazi Park protest to a discussion of sustainable urban communities, but the problem that underpins the situation is undeniable.

Dr Aliye Ahu Akgün, an associate professor in the urban planning department of nearby Istanbul Technical University, told Guardian journalist Luke Harding that the park is one of the last surviving green public spaces in the capital city, and criticized the build-first, ask-questions-later approach to planning. Summing up the situation Akgün said: "I've been trying to teach my students for four years about the importance of urban planning. Now they finally understand what we are saying."

There are many other factors at play in the Gazi Park situation, but it is significant that the protest was started by young people. Meanwhile in the UK many schools were on their May half-term break, and my family and I had decamped to Barcelona on a mission to explore the city's famous Gaudí buildings and the 1992 Olympic Park. But we returned far more impressed with the inner-city apartment block living style and shared public spaces that lend the built-up Eixample quarter a reassuringly 'local' atmosphere which is often lacking in new urban developments in England, despite the best intentions of planners and developers.

In the UK, the proponents of 'garden cities' cast a shadow that runs all the way from the Port Sunlight model village of the Lever brothers (currently celebrating its 125th year) through Sir Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of To-morrow to Prince Charles's Poundbury. Such developments were held up as models for the next wave of government-backed large-scale housing projects by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a speech to the National House-Building Council in November 2012, when he tellingly invoked dreams of the philanthropic building schemes of yore. But a ground-breaking study by a small team based in the English Midlands suggests that the fashion for creating bucolic idylls in an urban setting may not be appropriate for the citizens of tomorrow. How did they arrive at this conclusion? They asked the 'tomorrow people'.

Talking to the future

It is now common for governments, local authorities and developers to engage local communities in consultations about proposed developments - with varying degrees of success. Dr Chris Jones of the University of Sheffield, for instance, provided valuable insights into the psychology of the NIMBYs and BANANAs ('build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything') who protest about onshore wind farms on BBC Radio 4's psychology magazine programme All in the Mind. His study, 'Understanding 'local' opposition to wind development in the UK: How big is a backyard?' (Energy Policy, vol. 38, no. 6, June 2010, pp. 3106-3117), found that consultation may not change intractable opinions, but people are more willing to go along with group decisions providing they have been consulted.

But there is a significant missing link in most consultation processes.

Professor Pia Christensen of Warwick University (now at the University of Leeds) and colleagues from the universities of Leicester and Northampton created the ground-breaking project 'New urbanisms, new citizens' (NUNC) to investigate the perceptions and impacts of new housing developments on young people aged 9 to 16 - exactly the people who stand to gain or lose the most from recent and future planning and ecological housing 'experiments'. The project was, in part, inspired by Christensen's earlier work which investigated the mobility of teenagers in urban Copenhagen and a rural village in Denmark where the perennial problem of "we have nowhere to go" was a recurrent theme.

The NUNC project [ ] looked at four case study communities in the government-designated 'growth area' of Milton Keynes/South Midlands. Nine researchers conducted in-depth ethnographic studies lasting up to 30 weeks involving, in total, 175 young people from primary and secondary schools. Methods ranged from detailed interviews and peer focus groups to small community workshops and, particularly useful, participant-led guided walks - all of which were recorded in the form of ethnographic field notes.

The four case study areas comprised typical late 20th- and early 21st-century housing developments: a large-scale extension to an existing town; a stand-alone residential village; an infill development on a brownfield site; and a test-bed development of eco-friendly properties.

The first case study has now been published in Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability. The paper 'Living in a sustainable community: new spaces, new behaviours?' (vol. 18, no. 3, 2013, pp. 354-371), by NUNC team member and post-doc researcher Sophie Hadfield-Hill, reports on the largest of the developments - the urban extension - where the predominantly traditional-style homes bring together all ages and a mixture of owner-occupiers, buy-to-let tenants and social housing. The scheme (which is not yet complete) boasts numerous environmental features, including a wind turbine and water harvesting/sustainable urban drainage system (SUDS), and a group of the homes are designed to meet level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, incorporating renewable energy technologies such as photovoltaics (PVs) and low-energy ventilation systems.

Disillusion begins at home

The young people interviewed were keen to explain the positive environmental actions they carry out at home, particularly energy-saving measures such as turning off lights and appliances, and recycling strategies. However, it was notable that several children identified the problems faced by their parents when the eco-homes failed to deliver on the promised energy savings and where technologies did not work. Problems included leaks in the main water tanks, faulty solar panels, broken heating systems, defective plumbing and water-harvesting tanks, and faulty lights. Hadfield-Hill's paper also reports on a specific activity undertaken as part of the overall study, where participants were given energy monitors for a week and asked to keep notes of various energy-related activities. The researchers concluded that "... there is a disconnect between the 'greening of the home' and the 'greening of the human'", citing a general lack of knowledge among family members about how the technologies in their eco-homes are supposed to work.

Green day didn't deliver

The local primary school, a major focus of the study, is designated as an 'eco-school' and also incorporates numerous low-energy technologies. At the time of this case study the primary school was the only local community building. The study found that:

"... the majority of pupils recognised that eco-features have been designed into the fabric of the building; from pointing out the 'funky buttons' in the boiler room to the lights which are stimulated by motion sensors."

However, peer group discussions found that a special 'Green Britain Day' was a disappointment to the children, mainly because the decision to use as little electricity as possible disrupted lessons (particular ICT) and there were even complaints about the lack of the usual musical accompaniment to school assembly! There were similar problems with a 'sustainability week' which could have benefited from more knowledgeable local input.

Divided communities

As the NUNC project briefing notes that summarize all four case studies explain:

"Young people are crucial to the vitality of the public realm in new communities. Through their extensive outdoor activities (playing, walking, cycling, making and meeting friends) they are very active in building and maintaining communities in development - arguably much more so than many adult residents."

In general, the eco-design and architecture features of the school and homes were noted as an important source of pride and community-identity by young people, but some children were quite negative about the unconventional aspects of the buildings, saying for instance that they wouldn't like to live in an exemplar eco-house or even in a property with PVs because 'people would think you were weird'.

Significantly, the young people and their families were aware of a 'dividing line' between 'old' and 'new' communities, exacerbated in some cases by physical barriers such as walls and roads. Many of the children living in the urban extension said they were not allowed to walk beyond the boundary of the new development (for fear of busy roads), but this creates a significant barrier between the new and old communities and prevents them from accessing existing amenities.

Families also reported feeling isolated because of circuitous footpath layouts, or routes blocked by construction work (which is the subject of another research paper, currently in press, on 'living on a building site'). Some young people also reported that particular areas of new communities quickly acquired a reputation as being 'dodgy' or 'unpleasant'.

Ironically, the concept of 'green space' so passionately defended by young people in Turkey is a potential source of community tension in the UK.

The youngsters of the Midlands interviewed for the NUNC project frequently mentioned that they make use of 'left-over' spaces in new developments because there are few other places to go or things to do. However, the adults regard these areas as 'private' or designated for a particular cluster of houses and shoo the young people (and other 'undesignated users') away from these green spaces.

Shared space, Barcelona style

This hostility between 'local' residents, young people and even simply 'newcomers' confirms a pattern that most people brought up in suburban and semi-rural Britain will recognize only too well. Indeed, it's so commonplace as to be the target of much enjoyable TV soap opera and comedy. But Pia Christensen and her team have pinpointed a very important issue that planners need to address as a matter of urgency. New communities will not thrive, and therefore cannot possibly be regarded as sustainable, if the green places and shared surface street layouts (also the subject of a separate paper) alienate the very people that are the future of the community! As advocates of Secured by Design know, bored and disillusioned young people can unwittingly become drawn into antisocial behaviour such as minor vandalism and even into gangs and serious crime.

The Eixample area of Barcelona - the concept of pioneering urban planner Ildefons Cerdà in the 19th century - may have been around for a lot longer than the new urban developments studied by Christensen et al, but it is still going strong, even if the population today is of a slightly higher average social status than that envisaged by Cerdà.

Cerdà's aim was to create housing blocks on a standard footprint, separated by wide streets to promote good ventilation and solar access, and with markets (or shops), schools and hospitals within the blocks, and with yards and shared spaces between them. Today, the residents are certainly mixed - particularly in terms of age and ethnic origin. Good-sized supermarkets sit below apartments, with small local schools alongside; and the 'green spaces' between blocks provide well-used (and clean) leafy communal areas shared by old people resting at pavement cafes, busy mums supervising toddlers in designated safe-play areas, urbanites exercising their dogs, and teenagers hanging out on benches, 'shooting hoops' or playing ping-pong at concrete tables.

Apartment-style living may not be the housing type of preference in small-town England, but the concept of open spaces that are equally accessible to all local stakeholders is one that developers could readily adopt - providing, that is, someone is prepared to take responsibility for overseeing the ongoing care of the 'shared area'. Crucially, that does not mean leaving it up to well-meaning residents on a 'big society' crusade or local activist groups (who thereby tend to feel 'ownership' and regard the presence of people outside their personal networks as 'intruders'). And 'green space' does not need to be synonymous with 'grassy space': overgrown grass quickly becomes off-putting and in any case is unappealing in our soggy climate. Small trees and judicious planting/ hard landscaping schemes still deliver 'green'!

As Hadfield-Hill reiterates in her paper, school-aged young people account for almost a quarter of the UK population, but they are rarely consulted about the society they live in and have little direct influence over the environment, public services or transport systems that they use, or the political agendas that affect them (though that situation may be changing in Scotland).

Pia Christensen and her team conclude that many young people are very keen to be more involved in their new communities, but there is disillusionment with forms of community engagement (such as committees, councils, residents' associations).

'Consultation' is not enough - only by gaining an understanding of life from the perspective of today's children can planners and architects build places that are fit for tomorrow's citizens.