Young Planners Conference: Plenary 4: Good Design = Good Planning

With the exuberance and wine consumption of the previous evening’s soirée having been taken into account, it was a delight to see such a robust turnout at RIBA on Saturday morning. The format for the morning’s session had been deliberately chosen for its fast pace and easy-to-follow structure. This was, for many people, their first introduction to Pecha Kucha.

Pecha Kucha emerged in Japanese architecture schools in 2003 as a means for students to share ideas in a way that was snappy and to-the-point. By imposition of a few strict, simple rules, it makes for a lively format while overcoming the human tendency to waffle. The rules are as follows:

  • 20 slides. No more, no less
  • 20 seconds per slide. Each slide must advance automatically after 20 seconds
  • No animations.

Each presentation is thus inherently limited to just under seven minutes. This means that it is possible to have many Pecha Kuchas in one session, which is the point – it is for effective sharing of ideas. Accordingly, we engaged eight speakers for the morning’s session, each tasked with presenting on a different facet of this question:

“’Good design is indivisible from good planning’ (The National Planning Policy Framework), but do Planners understand good design?”

1)      Tom_Venables, of AECOM and RTPI London, opened proceedings, providing an introduction to Pecha Kucha and outlining the aims of the morning session. He highlighted the often poor designs of brand new housing and streets in the UK, contrasting them with the attractive and well designed built environment of the Netherlands.

2)      RTPI President Colin_Haylock followed by setting out the need for planners to have a better grasp of design. He expressed surprise that almost no members of the audience were prepared to identify themselves as designers – planning in the UK is overwhelmingly perceived as distinct from design, in contrast to Sweden, for example, where people may work as planning architects.

3)      Roz_Barr provided an architect’s perspective on the issue, demonstrating a number of projects on which she had worked, such as a contemporary addition to a listed museum in Bath.

4)      Professor Matthew_Carmona of UCL demonstrated how bad design can emerge as something of a default option, squeezed between the “Three Tyrannies” of RICS (market tyranny), RIBA (creative tyranny) and RTPI (regulatory tyranny). Good design does not happen by accident – it needs to form part of the delivery process.

5)      Nikola Miller is the 2012 Young Planner of the Year. Nikola gave an account of her recent trip to the USA for the American Planning Association annual conference in Los Angeles.

6)      Peter_Hetherington, Guardian Journalist gave a presentation on the perception of planners by the general public.

7)      George Weeks, of TfL and RTPI London, gave a presentation demonstrating the extraordinarily strong link between walkable neighbourhoods and people’s tendency to get sufficient exercise. If towns and cities are designed to make walking and cycling into effortless parts of day-to-day errands, public health can improve substantially.

8)      Alan Thompson gave an introduction to Design Review and how planners should approach it. Design Review is particularly important because it provides an objective, evidence based forum for evaluation by experts and can identify problems that can emerge later on.

Tom Venables then led a panel discussion between the seven other Pecha Kucha presenters and the audience. The questions picked up on the synergies between the individual presentations and made for a stimulating discussion – the allocated hour seemed to race by.

One of the final questions concerned the inevitable matter of quality in an era of austerity and, with widespread belt tightening, if good design could be justified. A response from the panel cited the example of IGLOO Regeneration, which was founded in the early 2000s in a buoyant property market. Faced with the need to justify its approach in 2008, IGLOO were able to demonstrate that high quality design delivered a better product and superior returns on investment. In this situation is becomes hard to justify bad design, when good design (which need not cost more) delivers a more valuable place. The planning profession has a major role to play in ensuring that this is followed.

Good design can foster better design; this is helped by sharing ideas, inspiration and examples of best practice. Pecha Kucha is an excellent tool for this. It allows a wide variety of topics to be covered in a short time, is equitable in its allocation of time to presenters, and maintains a swift tempo, keeping the audience engaged. If more planners can use it, the potential for catalysing new ideas could be significant. Like the Tokyo Shibuya-inspired reconstruction of Oxford Circus, Pecha Kucha shows how Japanese innovation can help us create better places in the UK.

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