Design guidance never creates well designed places, by Chris Brown

We aren't short of guidance on what makes a good place so it's intriguing to see Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) commissioning consultancy Tibbalds to write a 'visual design guide' to form part of the Planning Practice Guidance supporting the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)

This feels a little bit like civil servants getting their retaliation in first before the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission delivers its final report.

It’s hard to expect design guidance to have much of an impact though, even when it is embedded in the PPG.

Design is place specific, and I mean place, not local authority area, despite the long pedigree of publications like the Essex Design Guide. Not every place built in Essex during the currency of the design guide is beautiful, or even contextual.

So trying to do something at national level runs the risk of creating a checklist that developers’ planning consultants can wave in front of planning officers and planning inspectors, the latter group not renown for their design awareness, without improving the quality of the place.

Another worry about a ‘visual’ design guide is that it has too much of a focus on what a place looks like and not enough on its ability to deliver the fundamental public policy outcome of improving wellbeing.

Mathew Carmona’s work, published earlier this year, as part of the Place Alliance, and billed as a guide to decision making about the built environment, created a four stage ladder setting out the ingredients of successful places, and categorising them as ones to – Avoid, Beware, Aspire or Require - based on an extensive literature search, and feels like a reasonable checklist, if that is what is wanted, though it would lack both the visual and the contextual aspects.

This work, though evidence based, tends to codify the average. Individuals choose to live in places for a number of reasons and are probably, generally, trying to maximise their own wellbeing. This might be about their ability to walk or cycle to work, school or friends or it might be about their ability to jump in a car and go to a big supermarket, or the countryside, in a short drive, or both. The literature results seem to average out the minority for whom a car based existence in a weak community might maximise their wellbeing (albeit potentially to the detriment of the wellbeing of others).

Fundamentally the challenge is that design guidance never creates well designed places. They are created by good clients working with good designers. And there will always be a range of client and designer quality running from completely incompetent to excellent, probably with a bunching in the middle of the distribution.

National design guidance is just one tool in the toolbox that might reduce the number of projects at the terrible end and shift the middle a bit towards the excellent. And using this as the only tool is a bit like using a monkey wrench to fix a television, it might have its uses but there might be better tools.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of Igloo Regeneration

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