Urban design is more than a buzzword – it’s a growth market for consultants and local government. Here’s who’s doing it and how you can win a piece of the pie.
There’s no escaping urban design these days, with Urban Design Week on around the country, and umpteen government announcements and conferences on the subject. Does this mean that consultants have found a whole new subject to write invoices for?
You bet. The growth comes largely from local authorities, which are being squeezed to come up with urban regeneration schemes and to create the kind of public spaces and places you see on Ally McBeal. “They don’t have enough specialist design skills in-house, so they have to bring in consultants,” says Marcus Wilshere, chairman of umbrella body the Urban Design Group.
<b>Where does central government stand on urban design?</b>
Here’s a clue: By Design, a guide to urban design in the planning system published by the DETR and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in April, says: “Good urban design is essential if we are to produce attractive, high-quality, sustainable places in which people will want to live, work and relax.”
The big push to establish urban design as government policy came last year in Towards an Urban Renaissance, the report written by Lord Rogers’ urban taskforce. The report called for the introduction of “a national urban design framework, disseminating key design principles through planning and funding guidance, supported by a new series of best practice guidelines”. (Translation: do it our way or we’ll cut your privileges off.)
Lord Rogers also argued that sustainable developments conserving land and other resources called for higher densities and a mix of uses, both of which put an onus on the 3D design of buildings and spaces together. The Urban Villages Forum, whose urban design principles were applied at Prince Charles’ model village, Poundbury, has also become a government-approved authority on urban design.
<b>What are these key design principles?</b>
They are conveniently spelled out in By Design and illustrated in the Urban Design Compendium, which was published last month by English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. Both reports are available free of charge. The principles include creating people-friendly places, enriching existing townscapes, making connections for pedestrians and transport, and working with the landscape.
<b>So, is the government putting money where its mouth is?</b>
Definitely. Much of the government’s £2.7bn capital budget (including European funds) for regeneration and housing will involve urban design, and this should bring in at least the same amount of funding from the private sector. The DETR’s budget will rise to £3.1bn next financial year. In addition, the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, announced in July, pledged another £70bn to transport infrastructure, and transport interchanges will also involve urban design. Also, private developers involved in large developments, such as Chelsfield at London’s Paddington Basin, are commissioning their own urban designs.
The connection between urban design and urban regeneration makes sense. But surely British housing remains an urban-design-free zone? Next you’ll be saying spec housebuilders are embracing urban design.
Actually, that’s on the cards. The DETR’s revised Planning Policy Guidance 3 on housing, published last March, forces housebuilders to produce good designs and layouts if they want to win planning permission. And don’t forget that the Urban Design Compendium was partly published by the Housing Corporation, which lays it down as policy for the social housing developments it funds.
<b>Who is going to carry out all this urban design? Will a new urban design profession pop up to pinch it all from established professional consultants?</b>
Only to a very limited extent. Urban design is represented by the Urban Design Alliance, which was established in 1998 as a loose confederation of seven existing organisations and represents a grand total of 250 000 members. It comprises the five established professional institutes for town planners, architects, landscape architects, chartered surveyors and civil engineers, plus the Urban Design Group and the Civic Trust, which represents local amenity societies. The Urban Design Group is not a professional organisation setting its own qualifications, but draws its members from all professions and interest groups.
Both the alliance and the Urban Design Group stress that urban design is, and should remain, multidisciplinary. “Urban design is an activity rather than a profession,” says the Urban Design Group’s Wilshere. “It is an overarching process that spans across disciplines. It is not just about designing the physical environment but involves land use, movement and area management. It is about bringing all these perspectives together and working in a holistic fashion.” (Translation: planning is involved.)
<b>But aren’t there a growing number of dedicated urban design consultants? </b>
A few, mostly small, practices specialise exclusively in urban design. They include Wilshere’s Urban Initiatives, Civix, Jon Rowland Urban Design, Roger Evans Associates, and the UK branch of large US firm EDAW, which is the market leader. They tend to set briefs for areas and draw up urban design frameworks, strategies and design guides within which other disciplines work.
Several practices of the established professions also have urban design arms. They include town planner Llewelyn-Davies (author of the Urban Design Compendium), architect Terry Farrell & Partners, landscape architect Gillespies, structural and civil engineers Ove Arup & Partners and Alan Baxter & Associates, and property consultancy CB Hillier Parker.
<b>Who are the clients for urban design projects?</b>
Planning public spaces is traditionally the responsibility of local authorities. For their part, a few large developers and housebuilders are undertaking groups of buildings that require masterplans. But true multidisciplinary urban design is increasingly commissioned by partnerships pooling together stakeholders from the local authorities, transport authorities, regional development agencies, housing associations, chambers of commerce, community groups, local employers and private developers, among others. National quangos such as English Partnerships and English Heritage and privatised industries such as Railtrack and the regional water authorities often figure in these client partnerships, and sometimes initiate urban design projects in their own right.
In town centres, these client partnerships can be formalised as town-centre companies, of which there are now 60. More ambitious and pioneering are the three pilot urban regeneration companies in Liverpool, east Manchester and Sheffield, which have been set up by the DETR with special powers for urban design, as recommended in the Rogers report. Three more urban regeneration companies are expected to be announced within the month.
In many cases, the planning or urban regeneration department of the local authority acts as client project manager, although sometimes a consultant is appointed for this role.
<b>So much for the theory. How can I get a piece of the action?</b>
By pitching for projects competitively as a member of a loose team of half a dozen or so consultancies. If the project is design-led, an urban design consultant often heads the team; if it is economic regeneration-led, a large property consultant is usually in charge.
<b>How should I calculate my fee bid?</b>
Not on a percentage of capital costs, but based on the resources and time spent on the project.
<b>How do I find out which projects are coming up?</b>
By scouring the European Union’s Official Journal and keeping in with development partnerships being set up in your area. Having your projects published in the journals and media also helps towards being nominated onto shortlists. The Urban Design Group and the British Urban Regeneration Association are both good arenas for networking.
<b>What special attributes does urban design work take?</b>
“The emphasis is on collaboration,” says Brian Raggett, this year’s Urban Design Alliance chairman and director of CB Hillier Parker. “Consultants have to gain a good understanding of the needs of each member of a multi-headed client and the contributions of each member of a diverse project team. That can all be quite a challenge.”
<b>When is an urban design not an urban design?</b>
“Sometimes you get a grandiose architectural project, like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, that is held up as a major piece of urban design and a catalyst for urban regeneration,” says Wilshere. “But the regeneration of Bilbao only worked because an entire new metro and a whole raft of other urban systems were developed at the same time. This takes joined-up thinking.”