The role of urban design in cities, towns and villages

Justin Webber, chair of the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Urban Design Network, explains why it is important for decision makers to take a long-term approach to improving the quality of life in our cities, towns and villages

The implications from a global pandemic on public policy are clearly profound in many areas, but it is at the spatial dimension where they are potentially most visible. Restrictions on movement have made many people engage more with their local environment, whether that be exploring local parks and green spaces or cycling new routes on pop-up cycle lanes. The compression of geographic horizons pulls into sharp focus the quality of domestic environmental conditions and that of the immediate neighbourhood.

Increased home working raises attention to the issue of flexible accommodation and the potential need for internal space standards, while social distancing focuses attention on the need for streets that are more generous to dispersed flows of pedestrians. Besides some more technical aspects of design, a deeper notion of ‘place making’ is apparent and the value of creating new urban environments that are visually stimulating and aid our mental health. In essence: are we consistently creating places that operate beyond the functional level and actively enhance the character and appearance of the existing urban areas they hang off?  

Heightened engagement with our immediate local environment provides a potentially temporal focus to the importance of high-quality place making, but longer-term trends are no less compelling as a stimulus to the same end. Pre-pandemic, urban areas needed to address the challenges of globalisation, the rise of E-commerce and hypermobility. While no panacea, good town planning remains central to turning those potential threats into opportunities in the form of helping enhance the quality of existing urban areas and creating new ones with a strong sense of place.

Going back to antiquity, there has been an appreciation that places imbued with meaning and value are more attractive to humans. The concept of ‘genius loci’ (‘spirit of the place’) relates to the idea that certain localities have an attraction which gives us a sense of well-being, which we want to return to. Although superficially somewhat intangible, we can all readily think of places that we like to spend time in, whether they be historic places such as the centre of Bath, modern places like the Olympic Park in London or reimagined places, such as the High Line in New York. Although very different in terms of style, the unifying variable of the places listed is high quality design and materials. Learning from the best examples, we can further unpack the variables that help create great places and seek to apply those points more generally.

By definition, high-profile examples are unusual and have characteristics, such as major sports infrastructure, that are not applicable to much smaller developments elsewhere. However, the processes that sit behind them are potentially transferable and can be augmented to meet the circumstances of divergent locations and scale of projects. Making streets attractive and good design more generally may appear self-evident in abstract, but there are plenty of variables that serve to make them less likely. Urban areas are complex and while diversity can be their greatest strength, whether that be in terms of human capital of architectural style, that complexity needs careful management. Local authorities are central to this in providing joined up management of development pressures, but resources need to be allocated to ensure a passive role does not allow opportunities to be missed.

Effective place making
Good planning and effective communication of plans to the wider public maximise the potential for effective place making. Bad design is potentially locked into a development before anyone has drawn anything through a poor appreciation of site constraints and inflated land acquisition prices. Good plans, whether in the form of masterplans, site specific planning guidance, design codes or other documents like conservation area management plans are therefore essential. These should be as short, legible and accessible as possible to ensure they meet their target audience Producing them with the active involvement of the local community is beneficial in these terms as much for the useful insights that a wider pool of people may bring but also as mechanism for creating advocates and communicators of their role.       

Town planners and transport planners have a key role here, but the best planning involves early involvement from all stakeholders and the wider public. Good design follows from a comprehensive appraisal of site conditions and relies on the quality of data that feeds into it. Some of the most awkward design details are a product of poor planning, with items added late in the process after the main design had been finalised. Important but potentially creating visual clutter, examples include bin stores for rubbish and recycling, properly secure and covered cycle parking or sustainable urban drainage systems.    

Providing more robust plans upfront may provide additional costs, but holistic design is essential for good place making, with economies to be gained in terms of designing in more elements early on and avoiding potentially prohibitively expensive retrofitting or more onerous ongoing revenue costs. Investing time in good procurement processes that place emphasis on quality can similarly pay for itself by identifying creative designers who have the vision to unlock the potential of a site, creating development that is more distinctive and can attract a wider range of potential end users.  

Where new development falls short of the standards that are required, a robust and reactive system of development management is required, and it is key that councils invest both in specialist staff and promoting design literacy with elected members and the wider public. Local communities are one of the most valuable resources for ensuring design quality at all stages of the planning process, as well as with the good partnerships required to ensure good longer-term management of new places.    

Urban Design Network
The Royal Town Planning Institute focus on the importance of design quality through their Urban Design Network and look to inspire built environment professionals with best practice around the UK and Ireland. In response to the pandemic they are raising attention to the value of planning through their #PlantheWorldweNeed campaign.

This pulls together the many overarching contemporary challenges that society faces, from lowering carbon emissions to tackling determinants of public health. Good planning has the opportunity to unify the response to conflicting aspirations in a more equitable and inclusive way.

The government is currently consulting on a radical new White Paper that seeks to reform the planning system in England. Amongst other things, this would seek to move much of the work relating to development from more responsive development management to more proactive land use planning. With elements incubated in the work of the government’s ‘Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’, design quality is embedded into the White Paper and there are some encouraging aspirations detailed. For the reasons set out in this article, the RTPI would support design quality sitting at the very heart of planning into the future.        

Justin Webber is chair of the RTPI’s Urban Design Network. He is also Senior Building Conservation Officer at Leicester City Council.

Further Information: 

www.rtpi.org.uk