The urban design elite needs to make better use of data, by Euan Mills

Architecture and design are often misconstrued as being the most subjective areas in the shaping of the built environment. Finding consensus on what 'good looks like' has always been challenging.

Whenever I talk about the potential to use algorithms and automation in planning decisions, people quickly refer to design quality as the one thing that computers can't understand.

The recent publication of the first National Design Guide in over 20 years has brought this debate back to the fore of planning. Whilst many still promote the view that design quality is subjective and that architecture is more of an art than a science, the truth is we have enough evidence today to know how to design good quality places. Glance at other design professions, and we see how outdated this debate it.

From product designers to graphic designers and everyone in between, design professions today all heavily rely on data to inform their work. Data is collected through cycles of ‘user research’, ‘prototyping’ and ’user testing’, and technology is used to track eye movements or undertake thousands of ‘AB tests' before committing to any design. This data driven approach is so well-established, that the award winning Government Digital Services have a design principle that explicitly sets out the need to ‘Design with Data’ and the importance of letting "data drive decision-making, not hunches or guesswork’.

Some will argue it’s easier for designers with simple, clear and easily measurable objectives, such as making products easier to use or getting clicks on an advert, to use data to inform their designs. Maybe the design of the built environment is too complex and we still have to rely on ‘gut feeling’ to know what’s right. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl famously exclaims that we "know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens".

But we’ve been designing cities for thousands of years, and in that time we have learnt a huge amount from prominent urban design thinkers. From Jane Jacobs we’ve learnt the importance of mixing land-uses, small blocks, density and diversity; from William Whyte the impact of sunlight in the public realm; and Alice Coleman the importance of territory and sense of ownership. And we are now learning more, from neuroscientists, such as Collin Ellard’s findings on how street-level frontage impacts on people’s dwell time, and Nobel Prize winner John O’Keeffe’s work on understanding neurological aspects of how the human brain navigates through space. Whilst the built environment is complex, new technologies are giving us the means to collect more data and analyse it more robustly, so we can truly understand the impact of places on people.

MHCLG’s design guide sets out 10 characteristics of well-designed places. Whilst this is a great first step towards a more data-driven design profession, we now have to specify the data that we need to provide evidence for each of these characteristics. We cannot continue to rely on hunches and ‘gut feeling’ of a professional elite. We need to start measuring and learning what works and what doesn't, establishing a more user-centred and data-driven approach to how design the places we live in.


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