What is the future of urban design?

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In answering a final year student’s questions, Eric Dawson’s responses suggest that Urban Design is in a process of evolution. We are interested to hear what you think and welcome your comments and feedback on this article.

STUDENT: “In your opinion, what is ‘good’ urban design?”

ED: “Urban Design is a collective term that covers a multiplicity of considerations, but which primarily articulates a need for collaborative working towards a set of commonly held objectives.

The term has grown from an early focus on physical environmental issues to encompass broader aims such as ‘sustainability’, ’resilience’, ‘mixed use’, ‘liveability’, ‘the green agenda’ and ‘spatial planning’. It has also become a means by which to link physical development proposals with wider social policy agendas – e.g. promoting healthy, active lifestyles; addressing inequalities; tackling climate change; achieving low carbon futures, etc.

The measure of what ‘good’ urban design is will depend upon how successful the outcome has been in delivering on its objectives. Because of its multi-faceted nature, for some, this will focus on a participative, inclusive, collaborative process, or how the needs of a diverse set of user groups has been met; for others it will involve multi-disciplinary working methods; or whether appropriate policy (guidance/regulation) was available and applied; whether leadership was exercised; how different forms of governance were enabled that granted ‘permission to do’; or how ‘new ways of doing’ were demonstrated… for some a focus will be on built outcomes; other will concentrate on the occupation, habitation and use of spaces between buildings; others will start with ‘enabling people’s lives’ … there will also be issues relating to practical delivery – funding/ phasing; and of longer term stewardship and maintenance.

‘Good urban design’ should encompass all these (and other) factors to deliver good places where people want to be, which retain and enhance their value (both economic and social) across time.”

STUDENT: “How has urban design evolved in Scotland over the past 30 years?”

ED: “Urban Design in Scotland (and more generally) has evolved with wider societal changes. In 1980’s Scotland there was an exploration of civic society and a desire to pursue a Constitutional Convention to press for devolved powers. Scotland retained a higher regard for socially-oriented ‘design considerations’, and didn’t experience the formal requirement for ”no unnecessary imposition of design standards” as expressed in DOE Circular 22/1980, during a time when 1980s UK emphasized speed and efficiency in pursuit of rapid decision making (in Scotland design became a material consideration in planning applications – NPPG1, SOED, 1994).

‘Urban Design’ grew as a discipline throughout the 80s/90s with publications such as ‘Responsive Environments’ (Bentley et al, 1985), the election of the urban designer Francis Tibbalds as RTPI president in 1988, who spoke of the need for good UD/public realm, and the 1996 white paper ‘This Common Inheritance’ which acknowledged the importance of design in creating good environments, against a context of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

From the mid-90s, with design as a ‘material consideration’ in the planning process, UD increasingly became recognised as a means by which to consider ‘design aspects’ (rather than subjective matters of aesthetic taste or style) of development proposals and/or to develop planning design-related guidance, and by the late ‘90s UD was seen as a means of leading the revitalization of urban areas and stimulating construction – as evident in ‘Towards an Urban Renaissance’, 1999.

The 1999 establishment of The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and publication of ‘By Design’ (“This guide is intended as a companion to planning policy guidance and subsequent planning policy statements and aims to encourage better design and to stimulate thinking about urban design”) south of the border was echoed in Scotland by the publication of ‘Designing Places’ in 2001, and the establishment of Architecture + Design Scotland (A+DS) in 2005 as ‘Scotland’s champion for Architecture, planning and the built environment’.

To some extent the good intentions of the commercially practiced urban design agenda pursued throughout the 2000s has been tarnished by several factors principally relating to credit, financial collapse and formulaic approach.

With the stalling of large scale development and regeneration programmes due to economic circumstances, the practice and focus of urban design has tended to move towards smaller scaled, enabling and empowering activities in common with a more localism based agenda. Since 2005 the Scottish Government has promoted a ‘design led approach’ to placemaking through a series of initiatives, such as the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative and more recently charrette events – these initiatives also link in with wider ‘citizen empowerment’ agendas.

The practice of ‘urban design’ is continuing to evolve according to changing contexts. In Scotland, a contemporary urban design narrative tends to be spoken about in broader terms of ‘placemaking’ or urbanism.”

STUDENT: “In today’s society what are the barriers for urban design?”

ED: “See points above – In summary: throughout the 2000s UD as it was commercially practiced tended to focus on promoting physical development and short-term returns rather than less visible investments in infrastructure (physical and non-physical) to create sustainable places that can evolve over time.

Barriers to UD in today’s context are many and varied, and may include:

  • a pragmatic need to stimulate economic activity – that champions short term imperative over longer term ambitions
  • lack of civic leadership
  • political cycles – a need for short term fixes
  • lack of skills in placemaking, that visualise the spatial consequences of proposals
  • a focus on delivering physical development rather than growing conditions to support social capital and people’s lives
  • development which is driven by financial business modelling rather than people or place modelling
  • lack of empirical base and argument for UD (evidence tends to be anecdotal or less tangible)
  • lack of understanding of wider benefits that UD delivers – e.g. benefits that are valued in more than merely monetary terms – UD tends to be seen as ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘essential must have’”

STUDENT: “Is there valid policy to support and enforce good urban design?”

ED: “In Scotland current UD national policy is based on Designing Places 2001, and Designing Streets 2008, along with a raft of other design related policy guidance. This is supplemented at local level by locally adopted UD policies. The Scottish Government will shortly be publishing a new Architecture and Place Policy, and refresh of Scottish Planning Policy which will place an emphasis on placemaking.

Due to its varied nature UD can draw on other policy backgrounds e.g.

National Outcomes

Community planning / SOA

NHS – Good places better health

Community Empowerment

Service rationalisation / public spend

Strategic asset management

Green Infrastructure

There may be a case for a central ‘golden policy thread’ to track and stitch the value of UD through all of this policy landscape – expressing the multi-dimensional nature and benefits to be gained through UD.”

STUDENT: “What are the benefits of good urban design?”

ED: “The benefits of good urban design have previously been described in a variety of documents and publications, e.g. CABE – the value of urban design; llewelyn davies urban design compendium, etc.

Benefits are broad ranging, and include economic (better returns on investment), social (socially cohesive communities; strong sense of place, etc) and environmental (places where people want to linger … and therefore spend time and money). Designing Places describes the qualities of successful places – safe, welcoming , distinctive, etc .

However, there is a lack of research and evidence to justify the benefits of UD. A challenge exists to express the benefits of good urban design which are both direct/tangible/obvious and indirect/less tangible/less obvious – the first group tend to encompass economical factors capable of measurement (e.g. jobs, economy, etc); whereas the second group tend to concern broader social and environmental factors which are less easily measured (e.g. liveability, health, user experience).“

STUDENT: “What is the future of urban design?”

ED: “UD is evolving and is now being more widely expressed in broader terms such as ‘placemaking’ and ‘urbanism’. These terms recognise a need to focus on both the physical/design, and also on the consequences of the design – i.e. what it achieves for people. This will be the major challenge for the future of UD in today’s context – how to create chance and opportunity for people to make things happen in their own communities and places.

UD will likely take on more of a facilitative and enabling role – finding new ways of problem solving –fostering knowledge and making things happen/‘doing things’, rather than the prescriptive application of UD principles through regulation, legislation and specialist input.

The focus may also shift to a smaller scale – plot based as opposed to large scale regeneration exercises that we have seen in the past (largely stemming from issues relating to credit/ finance as discussed above).”

We are interested to hear what you think and welcome your comments and feedback on this article.


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