An approach to briefing for urban design and housing

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Diarmaid Lawlor recently facilitated a workshop with students on the Landscape Architecture courses in ESALA, University of Edinburgh on urban design and housing. The purpose of the workshop was to help shape the process of briefing and identify the priorities for spatial structure. The format of the workshop has been captured as a learning point, which can be downloaded here.

In broad terms, there were three parts to the workshop.

The first part asked the students to think about the idea of living. A short presentation discussed the idea of living as a social activity, which is hosted spatially in a number of settings; the home, the neighbourhood, travel abroad. What living means varies from person to person, depending on age, background, socio economic means and aspiration. Ideas of living change as we get older, have families, change jobs, start new ventures. Given this complexity, it is important to develop empathy with the needs of others, and to begin to assess how these various needs may or may not be accommodated in space to deliver choice, quality and places that work for people. On this basis, the first workshop asked students to assume roles: older retired, young professional, young family and foreign migrant. In each role, each group was asked the same question: what does living mean to you? The question sought the emotional and qualitative aspects of the idea of ‘living’. The second question related to the idea of ‘relationships’: what are the necessary relationships to deliver this idea of living? This question sought to get people thinking about personal intimate relationships, peer relationships, informal relationships, relationships with institutions, relationships with consumption and so on. At the end of this session, each group was asked to feed back and agree on a key issue each. These were captured as performance criteria for the design development.

The second part asked students to think about the settings within which the ideas of living they had generated, and the relationships necessary to support this idea of living are acted out. To facilitate this thinking, students were given a package of images drawn from the Steve Tiesdell image library, with different building types, street types, block types, building interfaces, open spaces and social activities. With these images the students were asked to construct a visual brief, building up a jigsaw of element which related to the outcomes of the first session. At the end of this session, the students were asked to present back to each other and the conclusions were captured as a supplement to the performance criteria derived from the first workshop.

The third part consisted of a short presentation on the key aspects of form in terms of urban structure [primary streets and spaces], density, ;and use and typologies. The starting point for this workshop related to a definition of form presented in ‘By Design: towards better practice in the planning system’. This definition suggests urban form gives shape to places. It is the physical expression of the qualities of a place. Parts 1 and 2 of this workshop on urban design and housing sought to get students thinking about the qualities of the place that would support a variety of living for variety of people. On this basis, a matrix was constructed with cross referenced the qualities discussed against the aspects of form. The matrix was filled out through discussion, assessing which aspect of form was the most important issue to deliver the qualities identified. The final matrix summarises where the key focus for design development should lie. This set of priorities is supported by a set of qualitative performance criteria and a visual brief to help evaluated physical design proposals.

The presentation from the workshop is available here.

A summary note on how the workshop was organised and the resources needed to deliver it is available here.

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Place and leadership

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