Quality links award hopefuls

Design and appearance feature strongly among the projects competing for this year's RTPI awards, reports Anthony Fyson.

In another record year for entries to the RTPI Planning Awards, 38 were selected for detailed assessment and 21 made it to the finals.

A high standard of urban design and the appearance of buildings in their wider context are prominent themes.

The Merrill Lynch Financial Centre is a major development that fits into one of London's most sensitive sites close to St Paul's Cathedral. The scheme provides 83,000m2 of office floorspace in two new and two refurbished buildings and includes or adjoins several listed buildings. It lies in two conservation areas and is subject to the St Paul's viewing corridor and height policy constraints. Major financial trading floors have been created while the old Post Office building houses a conference centre and offices.

The project includes an extensive green roof garden, retained terraces and facades and preserved city wall remnants. A section 106 agreement covers public access, highway and landscaping works, restoring Christchurch Greyfriars' eastern wall and refurbishing a burial ground. Collaboration between the architect, the Corporation of London and English Heritage has led to an outstanding example of positive conservation.

Restoring the New Walk in Leicester involved recapturing the past character of a townscape more than 200 years old. Leicester City Council asked its conservation team to take the lead to restore the walk to its late Victorian appearance, an aim endorsed by heritage lottery funding. However, controversy was aroused by the need to fell trees.

Much meticulous work was required to interpret historic photographs and descriptions in modern applications and materials without pastiche. The walk has been resurfaced, with resin-bonded gravel replacing municipal tarmac. Street furniture and squares provide focal points along the 1km length of the walk. Boundary walls and railings to private properties have been reinstated and a closed-circuit television system and a cycling ban have improved safety on the route.

The redesign of Trafalgar Square represents the first phase of the World Squares for All project, launched in 1996 and now led by the Greater London Authority. Fine buildings have been improved by street furniture, better lighting and traffic management - including the closure to road vehicles of the North Terrace in front of the National Gallery - and less street clutter.

The square is better for relaxation and events with less pollution and noise, easier access to heritage locations and more public facilities.

Pedestrian crossings have been provided to match walkers' "desire lines" rather than traffic convenience and vehicular priority has been cut. Walls, balustrades and a grand staircase are built in traditional stone, much of it recycled.

Formula 1 motor racing team McLaren expected difficulties in obtaining permission to build its McLaren Technology Centre in the Surrey green belt. But planning consultancy Terence O'Rourke presented a convincing case for the centre to be built just outside Woking. The team wanted to maintain its link with the local workforce and the community valued the 1,000 jobs at stake, but skill was required to show that stringent environmental standards could be met. The case was eventually won following a call-in inquiry.

Much has been invested in environmental enhancement. The building is positioned on previously developed land and has been kept low and in harmony with the landscape, with extensive planting. The scheme includes a green travel plan, a community park, remediation of contaminated areas and a footpath diversion.

The relocation of the Met Office's headquarters to Exeter shows how major building projects can be handled with the help of dedicated planning staff.

The organisation sought to rationalise its 12 sites in Berkshire at a single location. Despite the distance between Exeter and London and the main international airports, the county and city councils put together a comprehensive package covering possible circumstances arising from the relocation.

The Met Office chose Exeter because it was satisfied that the move would go ahead smoothly with help rather than obstruction from the planning authorities. The 15ha campus-style complex is carefully designed round a central internal street. It features a striking entrance design, a green travel scheme and a sustainable urban drainage system.

Brighton and Hove City Council's planning guidance on tall buildings is a response to the urban agenda for higher residential densities and is intended to identify the contribution that tall buildings can make to achieving them. Consultants were employed to identify potential locations for tall buildings in the city and to prepare guidance on methods of raising design standards in such developments.

The study shows positive and negative aspects of tall buildings. Applications for denser and higher development are increasing, so the guidance was immediately useful. The city's strategy has been to use sieve mapping to identify suitable places for high buildings, taking into account significant views, urban form, conservation and transport patterns.

The Safer Places project, sponsored by the ODPM and the Home Office, aims to improve the planning and design of locations throughout England.

Llewelyn Davies was commissioned to produce a good practice guide on planning out crime, resulting in the first government guidance on the topic for a decade. Seventeen case studies highlight the crime-busting attributes of sustainable communities.

The guide's tool kit for planners, including policy and development control checklists, shows that simple measures can improve environmental quality as well as community security. It found that attractive places tend to be safer than unattractive locations and that planners have the enabling skills to encourage professionals to collaborate on the issue.

- The RTPI Planning Awards are sponsored by the Countryside Agency, the Crown Estate, English Partnerships, Kings Chambers, Macdonald & Company, the Planning Officers Society and pps TerraQuest.

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