Introducing urban design: masterclasses

The masterclasses offered by the institute aim to provide an awareness of the urban design agenda, explains Rob Cowan.

Many years ago I visited Liverpool's planning department to talk to Jim Amos, the then city planning officer - and later RTPI president.

I was considering a career in planning and wanted to find out what planners did in my favourite city. The highlight was being shown the up-to-date model of the city centre that was used to give an idea of the physical impact of planning proposals.

Planning, I could see, was a matter of getting to grips with the physical fabric of the city - with its waterfront, the dramatic sandstone ridge with two cathedrals, its spectacular Georgian and Victorian architecture and its mile upon mile of slums. The great model represented the planners' determination to change the place for the better.

What I saw and heard impressed me enough to spend four years on an undergraduate planning course. In these four years, so far as I can remember, I did not see a single model. Planning, as we were taught it, seemed to have nothing to do with the physical form of development. We did have a few lectures on architecture, but that was so we would have an idea of what architects did, not because design was thought to be any part of planning.

Planning, we were told, was about land use and the intangible forces that determined it.

Now the pendulum has swung back. PPS1 tells us that "planning and urban design are indivisible". What can this mean? Not that all planners must be skilled urban designers, or that all urban designers must also be planners.

PPS1 is surely saying that planning and urban design are both aspects of making places and that it makes no sense to draw precise demarcations between them.

The RTPI's masterclasses introducing urban design are intended to prepare planners for this new world. They do not pretend to turn anyone into a designer. Learning how to design can take years. The masterclasses explain how urban design fits into the planning system - how the qualities of successful places provide the basis for principles in policies and guidance.

The classes are likely to be of particular interest to development control staff wanting to understand the new urban design agenda, to forward planners asking what sort of planning policy and guidance their authority needs, to planning consultants wondering how they can make the planning and development process work and to architects puzzled about how design fits into the updated planning system.

The masterclasses aim to provide an awareness of the urban design agenda, first steps in urban design analysis, an introduction to design and access statements and an understanding of design policy and guidance.

These days planners and urban designers are, among other things, coping with developments of the 1960s and 1970s that went disastrously wrong.

How could we have imagined that such solutions would create successful places, we ask? But every generation thinks that it finally has the answer.

Can we be sure that the present PPS1 generation will not turn out to be just as wrong in its approach?

If we do fail, it is likely to be because of our overconfidence in the ability of a limited range of physical solutions to determine the quality of life in new developments. Isn't it worrying how most masterplans tend to look just the same as each other? Understanding the art of making places is a challenge for the whole planning profession and we are all learning together.

- Rob Cowan is director of the Urban Design Group and author of The Dictionary of Urbanism.

- Full details of the RTPI masterclasses in urban design, presented by Rob Cowan, can be viewed via

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