Delegates from across the built environment professions gathered at the Angel Centre (recently refurbished by AHMM) for the first in a series of three high profile events to promote high standards of urban design amongst planning professionals. The aim of the evening? To share ideas and discuss issues of best practice, setting out the urban design context for planners.
This event was particularly significant because it also marked the launch of Design Council Cabe’s London Design Review. After a brief welcome from its new director Nahid Majid, the evening’s programme was set out by Peter Murray, representing New London Architecture and event organiser Tom Venables, on behalf of RTPI London.
The first of the evening’s four speakers was Professor Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning and Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL and author of a number of books on the subject. In a presentation illustrated with Hellman cartoons, Matthew explained how the “three tyrannies” of the RTPI (regulatory tyranny), RICS (market tyranny) and RIBA (creative tyranny) can conspire to create unknowing placelessness, where no-one is responsible for the whole outcome and a poor quality environment ensues. Matthew stressed that the public sector is well placed to provide the opportunity space for high quality design, which is not delivered by chance and good fortune. The best places are shaped by a partnership of enlightened interests working together.
Next was Mark Brearley, Head of Design for London. Mark praised RTPI President Colin Haylock for his contribution to raising the profile of this topic, which is not a luxury discussion; it is an essential one. London is a fast-growing, skilled and rich city, with one of the highest concentrations of design professionals in the world. This should provide an ability to deliver the highest quality urban design. Mark argued that the daily practice of planning is too isolated, procedural and afraid of change. New university courses, such as London Met’s MA in Planning and Design may help to revive the profession of the Planning Architect, bridging the gap between planning and design. This in turn builds upon the massive increase in public awareness of urban design that has occurred since the late 1990s, helped by organisations such as Cabe, NLA, and the Architecture Centre Network.
The third speaker was Jim Eyre, a Cabe BEE, Trustee of the Design Council, and Partner/Director of Wilkinson Eyre Architects. Jim followed on from Mark’s assertions regarding people’s increased consciousness of good design; a recent Ipsos MORI poll (2009) found that 87% of people think that well designed buildings and spaces lead to a better quality of life. A valuable tool for achieving this is Design Review. With pedigree dating back to 1924, its importance comes across strongly in the NPPF. While it is not a statutory body, its ability to use collective, specialist and privileged knowledge to provide impartial advice for public benefit is well-recognised. The system has recently been reorganised to be self-funding; a panel review costs £8,000. The greater value obtained as result of design review, however, has the potential to be much greater than this.
The final speaker was Sir Terry Farrell who, as he was keen to point out, is a member of both RIBA and the RTPI. Sir Terry’s presentation began by asserting that, contrary to the evening’s title, good design is not the same as good planning; they are very different. The relationship is more sequential; good planning leads to good design. Planners, as previously asserted by Mark Brearley, are often inclined to look too much at process and policy, while architects can suffer from a Corbusian “object fixation”. Farrell cited Philip Ball, who notes that designers analyse cities looking for deliberate design, forgetting that most cities grew organically, in a manner reminiscent of the endless elaborate interrelationships observed by Charles Darwin in the “tangled bank”. This has led, historically, to an elaborate richness which is effectively impossible to replicate by design. Examples were cited of urban areas that work very successfully as a result of largely organic growth, such as central Bologna and, nearer to home, Kilburn in NW London.
Following the conclusion of the fourth presentation, the speakers assembled at the front of the room for a panel discussion, with questions from the audience. The dialogue remained refreshingly on-topic, covering such subject areas as increasing public participation in the planning process and the role of planners in being proactive and visionary. The need for early engagement and pluralism was emphasised, as well as the fact that an urban environment is not the same as a single large piece of architecture. Cabe’s ability to act as an enabler, raising potential clients’ awareness of the value of good urban design, was highlighted as being important.
Successful cities are ones that work well for people and this is reflected in Sir Terry Farrell’s conclusion that: “It is not design that makes London work, but it is important for designers to know what makes London work.”
Following the conclusion of the Q&A, delegates adjourned for refreshments and, in many cases, to continue discussions emanating from the preceding presentations. The event was very well attended; literally a case of “standing room only”, with a wide range of high level professional delegates. The second event in the series is in November and, if this one is anything to go by, will be highly relevant to anyone who enjoys enlightening talks, engaging discussions and would like to improve the quality of our built environment.
Special thanks go to NLA, Design for London, the Design Council (who hosted the event) and Tom Venables for organising it.
Presentations will be available on the RTPI London homepage: www.rtpi.org.uk/rtpi_london
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George is an urban designer at TfL and is a member of RTPI London’s Regional Activities Committe and Young Planner’s Committee.