Urban Design London training - session one

Urban Design London (UDL)

The value of urban design: Design guidance and design statements

An overview of session one of the UDL urban design training series, by Rob Cowan (Urban Design Group)

A pdf workbook of this session is also available online

Multimedia recordings (audio and visuals) of session one are available on the UDL website

RUDI's quick guide to successful placemaking resources is available here

Why do we keep building places we don't like?

Urban design is a process that involves a wide range of people with a stake in an area and many different kinds of professionals and communities of interest. A successful outcome depends on these people working effectively together.

Good urban design is not an abstract ideal. It is a matter of creating the right conditions to make places work. Its importance has long been recognised in historic areas. But everywhere is special to the people who live or work there. Urban design is relevant from the largest to the smallest scale, and from the most historic town centre to the newest suburban development.

Every day countless decisions are made that have the potential to make a piece of a city, town or village a little more lively, welcoming and pleasant, or a little more hostile, unpleasant or unsafe; and to enhance or erode its character.

Urban design is a powerful tool for achieving a higher quality of life, greater economic vitality and a more efficient use of resources. It is a key to making places where people will want to live, and which will nurture economic success.

What makes a successful place?

Not much more than a decade ago, the government’s line was that planning was concerned solely with land use. Design was a subjective matter, largely concerning aesthetics (what buildings look like), and not something that the planning system should – or could – control. The publication of By Design (DETR/CABE) in 2000 marked a new approach. This was the first government guidance to show how urban design fits into the planning system.

Urban design makes places that look good, but it is not just a matter of aesthetics. By Design focuses on the qualities that successful streets, spaces, villages, towns and cities tend to have in common.

By Design identifies the seven qualities of successful places as:
1. Character
2. Continuity and enclosure
3. Convivial public realm
4. Ease of movement
5. Legibility
6. Adaptability
7. Diversity and choice

The art of urban design is in making sure that these seven qualities are achieved, while also achieving the other economic and social objectives of a development (for example the need to achieve a certain commercial floor space or a certain level of social housing). Nowadays it is also essential that we require developments to use resources efficiently (to be environmentally sustainable).

Behind the specialist terms is a set of qualities that most people experience in the places they live in, work in or visit. In other words, successful places tend to have:
1. A distinct character
2. Clear distinction between public and private space
3. Lively public space
4. Convenient access
5. The ability to make strangers feel welcome
6. The capacity to adapt to change
7. A mix of uses

A place with a distinct character may have locally distinctive patterns of development and landscape, streets and other spaces, skylines and roofscapes, local culture and traditions, and building materials.

A place with a clear distinction between public and private space may have few gaps in the line of buildings; streets and other spaces that have a sense of being enclosed by their adjacent buildings, and by buildings and trees of a scale that feels comfortable and appropriate to the character of the space; and they are likely to have few leftover spaces that are unused and uncared for.

A place with lively public space is likely to have public spaces and routes that are busy and pleasant to use, and that have a feeling of safety and security. They are likely to be uncluttered and easily maintained, to be suited to the needs of everyone (including disabled and elderly people), and to have well-designed lighting and streets, and attractive and robust planting.

A place with convenient access may have the highest density where access to public transport is best; roads, footpaths and public spaces that are connected into well-used routes; direct routes that lead to where people want to go; and a choice of safe, high-quality routes.

A place that has the ability to make strangers feel welcome may achieve this through its landmarks and focal points, views, clear and easily navigable routes, lighting, works of art and craft, and signage.

The one thing we know about any place is that it will have to adapt to social, economic and technological change, as most places that have enjoyed long-lasting success have done. A place that can change easily is likely to have flexible uses, buildings and areas adaptable to a variety of present and future uses, and historic buildings that are capable of creative reuse.

A place with a mix of uses may have a variety of layout and building form.

The form of development

How do we achieve the seven qualities of successful places? As far as urban design and the planning system are concerned, the answer is by influencing the physical form of development.

The physical form of buildings, structures and spaces is determined by:
  • Layout
  • Density and mix
  • Scale: height
  • Appearance: details and materials

This is what urban designers deal with, what design policy tries to control, and what urban design guidance specifies. Each aspect needs to be considered at various scales. We need to remember that some elements of urban form – the street layout, for example – are likely to last longer than others.

Urban structure
Urban design is concerned with urban structure: the relationship between new development and nature, land form and existing buildings; the framework of routes and spaces that connect locally and more widely; and how developments, routes, open spaces and precincts relate to one another.

The diagram shows the major
existing and proposed routes,
and geographical features.
The urban structure can be
shown in a drawing of the
place(existing or proposed)
that consists of a few strokes
of the pen.

Urban grain
It is concerned with urban grain: the nature and extent of the subdivision of the area into smaller development parcels. This shows the pattern and scale of streets, blocks and plots, the rhythm of building frontages along the street as a reflection of the plot subdivision.
Here the structure in the
diagram above has been
developed into a series of
blocks. These have a 'fine
grain': that is, routes and
spaces frequently subdivide
the built form.

Density and mix
Urban design focuses on density and mix: the amount of development and the range of uses this influences. It takes account of the intensity of activity relative to a place’s accessibility; the place’s vitality relative to the proximity and range of uses; and the development’s viability.
Increased density does not necessarily
mean taller buildings. All these developments
are at 75 dph.

Height and massing
Three-dimensional form is expressed by aspects of the development’s height and massing: the scale of a building in relation to the arrangement, volume and shape of a building or group of buildings in relation to other buildings and spaces; the size of parts of a building and its details, particularly in relation to the size of a person; and the impact on views, vistas and skylines.
Building height can be defined by the building
shoulder line (the top edge of the building
visible from the street). Setbacks and mansard
roofs may rise above this.

Urban design also considers architectural details and building materials: the art, craftsmanship, building techniques and detail of the various building components; the texture, colour, pattern, durability and treatment of its materials; the source of the materials; and the lighting, signage and treatment of such features as shopfronts, entrances and building security.
Contrasts in materials can still create
a fine streetscape.

Ecological impact
And urban design considers the impact of development on microclimate, ecology and biodiversity; the treatment of parks and play areas; natural features and recreation areas; and long-term management and maintenance.

From form to qualities

The design process is likely to involve thinking about which of the aspects of development form listed above will be most important in achieving certain of the qualities explained under the section ‘what makes a successful place’. In one case, for example, the choice of building materials will be particularly important in responding to the character of the area. In another case, building high may be important to create a landmark that will help to make the place legible by helping people to find their way around.

Design is a matter of achieving the appropriate balance between the qualities. A local context of five-storey buildings may suggest that a new building should be of similar height to reinforce the area’s character, whereas an aspiration to create a landmark in the townscape may suggest something significantly taller on the site.

Both of the alternatives may be reasonable solutions. Deciding which to go for is likely to depend on weighing up a wide range of factors in the process of creative thought and discussion. Urban design is never a matter of ticking boxes.
Aspects of building form have relationships
with the qualities of urban design. Try and
fill in which relationships are very
important and which are not important.

The planning toolkit

The local authorities need to give a consistent message that design matters at all stages of the planning process. They can achieve this through having robust design policies in their plans, appropriate design guidance, a focused development control service, and the necessary design skills.

Design guidance
There are several different types of design guidance. There are no universally agreed definitions of them, so it is important to explain what is meant in each case.

Generally urban designers talk about urban design guidance in these terms:
  • Urban design frameworks: broad brush guidance for areas.
  • Development briefs: clear principles for sites.
  • Design guides: for topics (house extensions, shop fronts etc) or areas (such as conservation areas).
  • Masterplans: guidance documents that record the collaborative and multi-disciplinary process of formulating planning and design principles (relating to social, economic and environmental aspects, and three-dimensional physical form) for a site, and show how those principles can be implemented. Masterplans are usually commissioned or produced by an organisation that is in a position to develop the sites. (In practice ‘master plan’ is often used as a generic term for all types of urban design guidance, which is a cause of great confusion).
  • Design coding: an increasingly widely used process of drawing up more detailed and prescriptive guidance, showing how the masterplan will be implemented.
  • Area action plans: introduced in the new planning system. Useful in developing new policy and allocating uses, and as a delivery tool. They can take from 18 months to 3 years to produce, and they need an independent examination, so any local authority will have the capacity to produce only a few of them.
  • Supplementary planning documents: also introduced in the new planning system. An alternative to area action plans for getting the principles implemented. They guide, rather than deliver, development. Supplementary planning documents indicate uses, rather than allocating them. No independent examination is required. They depend on the necessary planning or design policy being in place.

The basic process of preparing all these documents is generally similar. All urban design starts with understanding the context: finding out about the physical, social, economic and cultural characteristics of the site and its wider area. The relevant policy context needs to be understood as well. After appraising the context and reviewing policy, the next step is to formulate design principles on which the detailed design will later be based.

A feature of urban design is that all these processes are collaborative. They involve not only a wide range of people who have an interest in the place, but also a range of professionals, none of whom is likely to be able to come up with a balanced solution on their own.

Design statements
Most planning applications have to be accompanied by a design statement. A design statement is a written and illustrated report, accompanying a planning application. The statement shows how the applicant has analysed the site and its setting, and formulated and applied design principles to achieve good design for buildings and public spaces. Its scope and level of detail are determined by the nature of the development, the site and its context. The statement has a specific job to do in explaining the background thinking that led to the planning proposal being drawn up. It is not just a description of the planning proposal. Used well, design statements have enormous potential for raising standards of design.

Government guidance tells us that design statements (design and access statements, as the DCLG calls them, illogically and confusingly, as though access were not a major element of the design of buildings and places) should set out the scheme’s use; the amount of development; the layout (indicative at outline stage); the scale (parameters at outline stage); the access (vehicular and transport links, and inclusive access) (indicative points at outline stage); the landscaping; and the appearance.

Children doing maths homework are told: ‘Show your thinking!’ The message to people producing design statements is the same. A developer should prepare a design statement as part of the pre-application process, rather than getting a consultant to prepare it in isolation.


Raising standards depends on learning from experience. A local authority should involve the people who make planning decisions – including council members – in monitoring the quality of what gets built and reviewing the council’s urban design guidance in the light of it. Regular visits to completed projects will help everyone reflect on the decisions they took and on the impact made by officers in negotiating changes to initial schemes. Planning Policy Statement 3, which deals with housing, calls on local authorities to monitor the quality of new housing in their area, and include monitoring results in their annual monitoring returns.

Design champions
Design quality depends on leadership and championing. A local authority design champion may be the means of delivering this. The champion is often a senior councillor supported by skilled officers. The design champion can provide a symbol of commitment to good design; create leadership to generate enthusiasm and commitment for design quality; provide a point of contact for external bodies; and coordinate effort across the authority.

Design review panels
A number of local authorities and other organizations use design advisory panels to help them assess the design aspects of planning applications and related issues. The skills and experience of a design advisory panel may be best used by involving it at an early stage in the planning process, such as in the preparation of design policies and urban design guidance.

Much is spoken and written about urban design, but we too rarely wander around, look, ask simple questions, and reflect. Placecheck (developed by the Urban Design Alliance) is a very simple aid for doing this.

The Placecheck method is based on two basic principles:
  • Asking questions, using a checklist if appropriate.
  • Forming a collaboration of people who are in a position to make things happen.

Building for Life
Building for Life is an initiative that promotes design excellence and celebrates best practice in the house building industry. It aims to improve the quality of English housing by identifying successful new housing schemes and explaining to industry and decision makers why they work so well and how we can learn from them.

The Building for Life standard, the national benchmark for well-designed housing and neighbourhoods in England, is awarded to new housing projects that demonstrate a commitment to high design standards and good place-making.

Coordinating the street

Often places that look a mess have been the subject of many well-intentioned efforts to solve specific problems. The problem is a lack of focus on the qualities of the place as a whole, and a lack of coordination needed to resolve the inevitable conflicts of interest.

Designing and managing the street environment takes more skill and determination than any other aspect of urban management and design. Nowhere else is subject to such wear and tear, the intervention of so many organisations, and often so little sense of ownership. Nowhere else can so much be achieved by getting things right.

A great deal of street design is geared towards physical measures that are intended to reduce risk. If these measures often do not work, it may be because many people using the street are happy to take risks, and insist on making their own judgments. Where will they cross the road? Wherever it suits them. They often go to extraordinary efforts to clamber over pedestrian guardrails or to negotiate supposedly unwalkable surfaces.

The design of a street should help people make such judgments safely – and, at the same time, to help a parent with a buggy to cross with no risk at all. But the design does not necessarily need to make the judgments for them. In many cases a relative lack of barriers to pedestrian movement will help to make both drivers and people on foot aware of the potential dangers. As a result they are likely to act more carefully. A safety measure that blinds people to awareness of danger may do more harm than good.

In our risk-averse culture, fear of blame or litigation has erected a framework of practice and regulation that prevents us from doing some of the things that might help us make more pleasant and successful places. We are bound by conventional wisdom that promises to protect us, but that also rules out unconventional, imaginative solutions.

The traditional barriers between professions reduce the likelihood of real communication between the people who should be working together. The barriers make it difficult for all the appropriate professions to become involved early enough in the process to let real collaboration become a reality.