Urban design network group puts quality top of high-density agenda

Changing lifestyles have increased demand for high-density housing but design evaluation frameworks are needed to ensure that schemes meet residents' quality and environmental standards, Nicola Gough reflects.

Achieving high-density housing is a complex and challenging task for planners and urban designers. The need for quality solutions is undisputed, but the drivers for density are not clear. Is it the market, demographics or other factors?

With increasingly diverse lifestyles, the search for adaptable development has become a fundamental issue in the design of new housing. Space is an issue that CABE takes very seriously, particularly the need for minimum standards. In parallel, the sustainability agenda is important at a strategic level and in individual behaviour around the built environment.

The RTPI urban design network's quality and density task group has been considering how to achieve a cultural shift that puts more emphasis on design considerations as opposed to density targets.

Identity, quality and context are themes that residents consistently say they want from development. Awareness of social and cultural capital is essential to maintain and enhance the quality of life and maximise land uses. Environmental, quality and character assessment tools can help councils structure redevelopment around the existing character of the area.

But what should be done if there is no clear local context or definable character? Even worse, what if the local character is in most people's eyes dismally poor and depressing? We can create something fresh to which the community can aspire. However, to develop contemporary character in the absence of strong or consistent local distinctiveness is perhaps the most testing challenge for urban designers.

This is not to advocate highly conservative urban solutions. Character is a function of many aspects of a scheme - local materials, customs and practices. It is a perception tempered by function, ownership and the maintenance regime as well as presentation - how decorative or just plain functional the built form is. The design components need to be arranged so they are flexible for adaptation and long life. Community buy-in is essential and there is a need for fresh, creative ideas to avoid apathy.

Mixed-use development is key to delivering quality places that can sustain a high density. It has been well documented that mixed-use schemes can make a positive contribution to the vitality and attractiveness of town centres, the extension of housing choice and the promotion of sustainable transport.

With the present downturn across all market sectors and increasing reticence to fund development, achieving mixed use will be even more difficult in the short term. Sustainable neighbourhoods must offer flexible and adaptable structures - particularly as the "demolish and replace" model is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Buildings need to respond to ever more rapidly changing lifestyles.

Design guidance is available for planners on achieving high densities without sacrificing quality. But the question is how useful and effective it is. This is especially pertinent to local authorities that are often unable to buy in skills. As yet, there appears no consensus among planners and urban designers about whether the recommendations in PPS 3 are right.

The Building for Life standard, on the other hand, is supported by the network's members because it offers 20 simple-to-use criteria as a monitoring tool during the design stage. However, there still seems to be difficulty in making evaluative judgments. Do such tools help people look at softer issues such as happiness, health and vibrancy, which are key to quality development?

This year's RTPI-DCLG report Measuring the Outcomes of Spatial Planning in England highlights the importance of developing meaningful quality and attitudinal indicators as part of coherent evaluation frameworks for local and regional planning. It shows that while there are major gaps in the evidence available to support place-making, there are major opportunities to move away from single-sector targets to measures that bring together quantitative and qualitative analysis.

- Nicola Gough is RTPI networks manager. The quality and density task group is seeking case studies of quality, high-density residential development. For more information of to offer examples, please email urban.design@rtpi.org.uk.


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