Urban Design GroupSeminar report 21 April 2015
Convened by the Design Network and hosted by Urban Design London this event took a much needed opportunity to take stock of the quality of residential streets. The impression from the audience was that most were aware of current best practice guidance such as Manual for Streets and Building for Life, but the question was, is the guidance being implemented.
Phil Jones, one of the key authors of Manual for Streets I and II reflected that at a street level the guidance was having an impact, but less so at a neighbourhood or district level. MfS advocates connected developments, but this was tending not to happen. Planning authorities were allowing development to proceed piecemeal, one field at a time. The possibilities of connecting a new development with more than one road were hampered by the lack of an adjoining open street pattern to link on to. This was further aggravated by problems over ransom strips. It was much easier for a developer to use just a single access road sized to deal with all the traffic generated by the development than go through the delays of CPO to obtain the land necessary to make more links. The result was that carefully designed internally interconnected development were in effect culs-de-sac. Manual for Streets could do with updating to reflect latest thinking on cycle guidance he added (Space to Cycle) noting that this was being applied .
Adam Tillion of Barratt Homes and winner of the 2015 Urban Design Developer Award stressed that while many of the aspirations of residents and passers-by were shared, there were some differences – for example passers-by value streets that aren’t dominated by parked cars, whereas residents place great importance on the availability of parking. Problems in creating better designed schemes included old school planners and old school highway engineers, as well as flawed or weak design codes and planning consents. But possibly the core problem was the financial equation – the money to pay for better design has to be found between the sale price of properties (limited by building society valuation), and the cost of the land, materials and professional input. An enhanced design could add 25% percent on top of the construction cost of a standard house design. Adam suggested that the root of the problem is the lack of a level playing field: it was difficult for a developer to sustain the extra cost of better design if the planning system permits other developers to build and sell poor quality development.
Emily Walsh of Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council erosion of quality that can occur when taking a scheme from concept to detailed design, technical approval, construction and subsequent use. Features that add delight to schemes such as tree planting and landscaping, were vulnerable to being eliminated at the technical approval stage. If they survive this stage the next challenge was sometimes to survive the onslaught of bored local youth. The result can be bleak looking streets. The council however has been trying to to improve things, including developing its own guidance, and mapping out the processes – an ongoing project. Perhaps the most important step of all has been to structure the highways section of the council less around the Highways Act and more around the full range of functions that the highway actually performs, including things such as public health.
There were many other speakers, including Bob White, who we will report on later, and Julie Bowerman of Steer Davies and Gleave who stressed the importance of involving highway consultants earlier on at the feasibility stage, rather than at the detailed design stage; and reminded people of the need to think about waste management.
The event suggested that there a gap between research and practice. Practitioners are doing their best, but they are not able to draw on a body of university research to assist them in their efforts, and instead have to rely on their own experience in making improvements. Universities could help greatly by researching what people want and need in a street to support their health, wellbeing and happiness.
There is still a need to break down the silos that damage the quality of development. In local authorities is vitally important that a golden thread is established between a council’s top level policies, including its corporate plan and the sustainable community strategy, and what actually gets decided upon and done. No department should act in isolation, but rather should make balanced decisions that reflect the wider interests of the community.
But perhaps the bottom line is the bottom line. If better quality is hampered by the financial services sector’s reluctance put a premium on better design, then is the solution in their hands? If quality design is a dividend that pays out over the long term, should mortgage valuations focus on future value?
It is worth getting these things right. As Esther Kurland concluded.. the streets we create today will be there for generation after generation after generation.
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