We hear from JTP’s Urban Designer, Brian Yuen, who shares his experience and takeaways from Urban Design London’s (UDL) Summer School.
I was recently able to spend three incredible days at UDL’s first ever virtual Summer School. It was an intense but amazing event that brought together over 100 professionals into one virtual conference from the convenience of our homes. With Covid-19 rendering live-events untenable, UDL put a lot of consideration into creating a virtual version of its annual programme.
The speakers represented a great balance between theory and history but also practical delivery, demonstrating how, by collaborating and with the right commitment, quality places can manifest for local communities.
Whilst it is impossible to condense all the information that was relayed over the three days, I wanted to share some of my key takeaways from the event, which resonate very closely with the philosophies and approach JTP has honed over many years.
Place value and place quality
There are a variety of characteristics that make up a quality place which are outlined in the Place Value & the Ladder of Place Quality report by Place Alliance. The report includes attributes such as natural open spaces, accessible pedestrian or cycle routes, mixed community infrastructure integration with the area’s history, active street frontages, and low levels of traffic amongst many others. These qualities are often doubted by those with influence and power who associate value largely with the monetary and economic benefits. In other words, elements of good design and placemaking may be sacrificed to accommodate the financial gain. The research done by the Place Alliance however, provides a clear and robust evidence base for the relationship between place quality and its impact on social, health, environmental and economic outcomes.
Creating well designed places is a necessity. JTP’s sustainable new community RadioStation in Rugby for Urban&Civic is a prime example of a quality place that has been designed to leverage the site’s characteristics, whilst maximising the principles of healthy placemaking and active design. Alongside the delivery of much-needed homes for more than 15,000 residents, the new neighbourhood also features opportunities for employment, education, leisure, recreation, and community interaction. JTP’s Design Guides set a framework for high-quality placemaking that benefits the community with extensive green space, a rich diversity of homes and commercial activities, schools, and substantial public realm.
The characteristics of good design and a high-quality place do not have to be forfeited for unnecessarily dense or poorly designed urban developments. Places need the right infrastructure to be viable but this includes not only the houses and roads required for development, but the social and community infrastructure that complete a neighbourhood – schools, sports, leisure and community facilities, green parks, public open spaces, walking and cycle friendly routes. These infrastructure requirements are fundamental to the functioning of a healthy, resilient neighbourhood and will increase housing demand for developers that provide for these facilities.
In light of this, it was great to hear from Amy Burbidge from Homes England who specifically mentioned Urban&Civic as an exemplar master developer for their exceptional work in prioritising social, community and green infrastructure on their projects, and understanding that houses will not sell if people do not want to live there.
JTP has also been collaborating with Urban&Civic to transform a 575-hectare brownfield site at Alconbury Weald. Together we have carried out extensive analysis of ‘where to begin’ and how to make that vital first impression; creating a sense of arrival and character with a placemaking strategy. The project’s focus of quality infrastructure was consistent with the new community benefiting from over 5,000 homes, an employment Enterprise Campus, four new schools, 290,000 sqm of employment floor space, sustainable transport links, community facilities as well as significant green spaces. Alconbury Weald is an exemplar for how housing can be delivered through a masterdeveloper model and a long-term vision that invests in place and community.
Alconbury Weald © Urban&Civic
Streets as a social space
Streets make up the bulk of our public realm, but the function of our streets have typically been prioritised for vehicular movement. Streets are the social artery that connect neighbourhoods and therefore they need to prioritise people first. Low traffic neighbourhoods will make our streets more sociable and liveable. Considering the ongoing pandemic, the problems of our streets have arguably never been more important in ensuring people can connect with their friends and local neighbourhood whilst adapting to new social distancing standards.
Inclusive community engagement
Unlike other design disciplines such as product design which place an incredible emphasis on market research and understanding the consumer, in urban design little commitment is placed on understanding the needs, concerns and aspirations of their end users. This often leads to inappropriate design solutions which can be seen throughout the built environment.
JTP has a long history of community engagement and has been responsible for over 500 community engagement events throughout the UK and internationally over the past twenty-five years. We use a range of qualitative and quantitative methods, utilising best practice principles, including IAP2 Seven Core Values for Public Participation, to bring the knowledge and creativity of local communities and stakeholders, including the hard-to-reach, into the heart of the design process. This builds valued relationships and establishes trust to co-create shared visions and consensus masterplans.
The industry can still learn a lot from the product design sector. We need insight from a well-rounded demographic of community representation to ensure we have an active, varied and inclusive engagement strategy. This will allow us to connect with different user groups and engage beyond the proportion of local people who have the time and availability to attend the consultation events.
UDL’s Summer School has provided invaluable insights and has reiterated that we can all positively change the built environment if we improve the ways we work, collaborate and engage, but also by taking a truly open-minded approach to understanding the value of a place.