RTPI NEWS: Urban design in all its varied aspects

An RTPI conference reflected the many facets of urban design that need to be taken into account when improving the built environment. Eileen Thomas reports

In a thought-provoking talk about the decline of our public spaces, the Institution of Civil Engineers' Robert Huxford said that they are, so often, tatty, threatening and empty of people, excepting for those who speed through them in their cars. The upshot is that most of us, if it were practical to do so, would turn our backs on our urban surroundings in favour of the sort of life that "Ambridge" appears to offer.

Huxford is an enthusiastic member of the Urban Design Alliance, which has made great strides in beginning to tackle this issue by bringing a variety of disciplines together.

Illustrated by a series of examples, Fred London of John Thompson and Partners showed that, where people have been engaged in discussions about where they are going to live, they are likely to be far happier with the result and want to care for their surroundings. He pointed out that the process is not perfect. Nevertheless, it produces a far superior outcome to more usual design practice.

The local plan process, which his council has adopted in planning a series of new settlements for the area, up to the year 2011, was detailed by South Hams District Council's Lee Bray. Again he showed that, by using illustrative material and consulting extensively, the council was able to steer what could be regarded as contentious proposals through to a successful conclusion. He mentioned that South Hams District Council stipulates that 60 per cent of its new housing must be "affordable".

In the first of a number of case studies, Pete Strange from the London Borough of Camden, who comes from a trading standards and environmental health background, described the Camden Boulevard project. This is a multi-disciplinary approach to improving the street scene, from resurfacing and cleaning - actually washing - the streets to grant aiding new shopfronts, controlling illegal street traders and graffiti busting. He reminded his audience of the importance of long-term maintenance and that the work of urban design goes on long after a development has been completed.

Alcester, a Warwickshire market town for which he has recently produced a long-term strategy, was the case study chosen by Timpson Manley's Mick Timpson. This strategy looks at restructuring parts of the town involving the eventual relocation of some of the public buildings. Smaller-scale improvements included the design of new signs with a distinctive logo to sell the town to visitors (Mick is also a design director of Placemarque, an urban branding company). The speaker pointed out that it is essential to underpin proposals with the economic and social realities of what is possible.

The often complex and lengthy process that goes into achieving the satisfactory redevelopment of one large site - in this case the site of a multiplex cinema in Wimbledon town centre - was the focus of Merton's Ged Lawrenson's talk. He emphasised the value of providing a detailed brief from the start and again consulting extensively, particularly taking into account how a building such as this and the space around it might be used at different times. As an occasional visitor to the complex, I can vouch for the fact that it works extremely well at night-time as well as during the day.

All in all, a successful day, which showed that many of the lessons for urban design are as applicable to small rural settlements as they are to inner urban areas - particularly the need for a multi-disciplinary approach, the importance of involving the user and a long-term perspective on the subject that uses the realities of a situation not as a constraint but as a way of generating imaginative solutions.

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