The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), the public body advising on architecture, urban design and public space in the UK, has recently launched this set of guidelines on how to develop a large scale urban design. It includes a substantial number of international examples of best practice and describes an approach to design that recognizes that many social, economic and environmental challenges need to be addressed at a larger scale than that of an individual borough or local council. One notable example, the East London Green Grid, crosses political boundaries to make links between smaller, individual interventions; but this isn't a common approach. The new guidelines are therefore an important step in bridging the gap between large scale strategies and individual interventions; in providing a detailed set of tools for assessing projects within the context of social, economic and environmental issues; and serving as a tool for developing the larger scale strategies themselves.
Hartburn, County Durham © Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council
Although the guidelines have been in the making for the past two years, their publication is particularly timely given the recent abolition of the Regional Spatial Strategies policy, regional planning bodies and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). The RDAs worked closely with spatial planners, providing research and guidance for the guidelines produced. Economic issues feature prominently in the resulting spatial plans. For example, the spatial plans identify new housing areas near major sources of employment and ensure good transport links between them. Social and environmental issues are also well integrated. This is partly because spatial planning lends itself well to looking at several things simultaneously, but also because, in dealing with land use, it automatically has to deal with issues of sustainability and responses to climate change. These different agencies working together and at the same scale allowed different aspects of a strategy to be tackled together, as well as promoted good understanding of different organizations' priorities and concerns.
The RDAs are being replaced by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which on initial appearances at least, have a narrower focus on business and will probably mesh less easily with the public bodies who will deal with spatial planning, so that the economy, land use and environment are unlikely to be looked at in tandem. While a sound economic strategy would, of necessity, include sustainability, the lack of close ties to colleagues working on spatial planning means it is unlikely to be integrated in quite the same way. It is intended that local authorities, which operate at a smaller scale than the RDAs, will take over spatial planning roles, while the LEPs will vary in the geographical areas that they cover, sometimes conforming to individual local authority boundaries, and sometimes operating over a slightly larger area.
This fragmentation of the role of the RDAs is problematic for a few reasons, not the least of which is that many issues need to be tackled together and at a larger scale than that of a 'local' council. People often live in one area and commute to work in another, which requires coordinated action on employment, housing and transportation infrastructure. Similarly, water management and flood prevention need to be looked at with an eye on the entire river system, not just the parts of watercourses within the jurisdiction of a particular council. Likewise, initiatives to increase biodiversity and the generation of clean electricity need a broader view.
While the RDAs were reasonably criticized for the arbitrary nature of their boundaries and for the way that regions had to compete against each other, their abolition hardly solves these problems. Some of them may well become worse, since presumably local authorities will now be competing against one another for development opportunities. The coordinated budgets and larger scale decision making infrastructure of the RDAs will also be a loss. It isn't yet clear whether these will be formally replaced in some way, or whether local authorities will be left to arrange this between themselves as and when necessary.
Commuting by district in the Northern Way: City-regions in the North of England based on travel-to-work patterns © One North East for the Northern Way
Role of the Large Scale Urban Design Guidelines
Against this background, CABE's guidelines have a clear role to play. The guidelines highlight the need for local authorities to join forces in order to satisfactorily tackle many issues. It also provides a method to help them work together: emphasis is placed on developing large scale urban designs with multiple stakeholders and through workshops, as a way to speed up the process and tackle conflicting interests, in a way that also builds understanding of other parties' viewpoints. While the tools and processes that have been developed in the guidelines demand a wide focus of view for urban design, they should be used to respond to a clearly specified problem that is analyzed within a larger context. It is this multi-layered approach that is truly vital. It allows competing social, economic and environmental demands to be clearly articulated and then, hopefully, resolved.
One last thing. This project is also CABE's first attempt at producing a purely online publication, which they hope will allow them to keep the guidance relevant and constantly up-to-date, quickly responding to changes in government policy or to comments from users. This doesn't mean that it can't be printed easily: each web page and each section of the report can be downloaded individually as a PDF. This document for the entire guidelines would require a significant amount of paper were it to be printed out in full. Its online publication may help at the small scale while the guidelines themselves may help spur larger scale sustainability practices.
Alison Killing is an architect and urbanist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
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