Standing up for urban design quality

A group of professionals in the North West is aiming to win political and public support for better place-making, explains Andrew Matheson.

These are tough times and the politicians tell us it will only get tougher. Public sector budgets and private sector profit margins are constantly being squeezed.

But should we as a professional accept that the notion of good design be sacrificed at the altar of cost efficiency? Certainly a group of professionals in the North West are determined to challenge any such notion.

A group of those concerned with the quality of the built environment met recently under the auspices of the RTPI urban design network. They met because they had concerns but they have certainly come out fighting with a number of ambitions for the group.

"We need to raise aspirations of what our built environment could be like and raise the importance of urban design to politicians through the public. We need to create an inclusive, common language of urban design that the public can understand," members declared.

Earlier this year the Scottish Government published Participation in Place-Making, which has an explicit aim to challenge traditional thinking and working. It argues that conventional ways of making places have, generally, not reached the quality that the public demands.

The paper explores how to better connect place-making and community empowerment and bring together the built environment agendas of place-making and design with the community agendas of social enterprise, learning and empowerment.

Intriguingly, research on the same topic carried out in New Zealand in 2008 found strong evidence that participatory processes enhance the well-being of marginalised communities. Four aspects stood out as being most significantly enhanced by participatory processes.

These were increased empowerment, enhanced vision-making and advocacy capabilities, increased collective action and an enhanced sense of pride, belonging and connectedness to community.

So is there here a major potential link into the "big society" that captures the imagination of our prime minister David Cameron? The North West network has demonstrated a willingness to rise to an engagement challenge and its efforts deserve support from all RTPI members and other professionals in the region.

But this is not an issue peculiar to Scotland and the North West of England - or New Zealand. The urban design network would be keen to see, publicise and support such initiatives across the UK.

Its members recognise that there is a need to demonstrate and promote the economic value of good urban design - to clients, developers, local authorities and other decision makers.

There is also a need to maintain the ground secured in recent years in terms of the policy basis for high-quality design and the whole philosophy of design review and place-making. What better to counteract the gloom of cutbacks than championing a cause that is close to your heart?

Andrew Matheson is the RTPI network manager for the urban design network. He can be contacted on 01789 763006 or via For more information on the documents referenced or for details of network membership, please visit

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