A Framework for Towns and Cities - Summit

Location: 
The Gallery, 70 Cowcross St., London EC1M 6EJ
Date: 
Wed, 05/06/2019 (All day)

Tackling the Silos: How to align legislation, policies, design guidance, practices and technical standards to ensure sustainable development and healthy, happy citizens.

'Everyone is a specialist whose aim is not primarily to achieve the end-product’

Ian Nairn, “Outrage”, Architectural Review, June 1955

Over 60 years after the publication of Ian Nairn’s famous “Outrage”, the planning, design and engineering of towns and cities continues to be beset by the difficulty in getting specialists to go beyond their own professional boundaries, to take responsibility for the overall success of new and existing development.

Most people will have heard of cases of masterplans being approved in planning, the street layout being approved by highway authority development control and then being rejected by the technical approval and adoption section of the council, with the final scheme abandoning the people-friendly vision in favour of an environment designed for vehicles.    This is just one of many examples.

The event coincides with revisions to key guidance including:

  • Manual for Streets - DfT thinking about a successor
  • Planning Practice - Design Section being re-written, including illustrated
  • Sewers for Adoption - version 8 expected later this year
  • Shared Space - currently subject to a DfT request to pause

 

  PROGRAMME

OBJECTIVES

  • Global  Urban Design Framework  Raj Rooprai
  • Mobility and Inlcusion  Brenda Peach
  • Neighbourliness and Social Inclusion  Noha Nasser, Mela
  • Public Health  Rachel Toms, Public Helath England
  • Systems Thinking  Loretta von der Tann, UCL

DELIVERY

  • Strategic Urban Design & Skills  Alan Stones
  • Masterplanning  Katja Stille, Tibbalds Planning and Design
  • Places, Street and Movement  John Dales, Urban Movement
  • SuDS & Water, Sensitive Urban Design  Paul Scahffer, CIRIA (Construction Industry Research and Information Association
  • Trees  Jim Smith, Trees and Design Action Group; Foresty Commission
  • Using the Space Under our Towns and Cities  Liz Reynolds, URBEN; Think Deep UK

WORKSHOP SESSION

  • Are there common objectives for towns and cities?
  • What are the main barriers?
  • What needs to be done to overcome them?
  • Specifically, what can professionals do?

 

   PRESENTATIONS

 

 

 

  REPORT

The objective of this event is to discuss how to move towards a system for the planning, design, engineering and management of towns and cities that works well together, and works consistently towards high level objectives, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, central government policies and statutory duties on issues such as climate change, human rights and equality.

  • How can technical standards be drawn up so that they don’t conflict with each other?
  • How can decision making by different sections of public authorities be made consistent with each other?
  • How can local authorities be encouraged to make the essential updates to their guidance and standards necessary to align with current central government policies and statutory duties?
  • What funding systems are needed to encourage great design and liveability?
  • How can local authorities be encouraged to make the essential updates to their guidance and standards necessary to align with current central government policies and statutory duties?
  • How can urgent objectives for improving public health, or adapting and preventing climate change be translated into action?

Report of an multi-disciplinary seminar held on 5th June 2019, hosted by the Urban Design Group to consider ways to improve collaboration in the planning, design, engineering, management and operation of towns and cities.

 

  Introduction: A systems approach or systemic failure?

Opening the event, Robert Huxford, Director of UDG, highlighted concerns that had been raised in research and by urban design practitioners over recent months:

  • fewer than 20 percent of new housing units built within walking distance of a public transport node, according to the 2016 GVA Bilfinger survey “Location of Development” published by the RTPI;
  • car ownership and use obligatory in most new greenfield development according to the work by Transport for New Homes;
  • Manual for Streets ignored by 80 percent of highway authorities, according to the Street Design in the UK survey conducted by the Urban Design Group; and the underlying evidence base, Transport Research Laboratory Report 661 going unread.

Localised examples of bad practice included:

  • highway authorities maintaining that it was unlawful in any circumstance to plant trees in the highway (a misreading of the Highways Act);
  • a highway authority banning any SuDS within 5 metres of the edge of a highway (an unscientific misapplication of the building regulations on soakaways) and
  • a highway authority maintaining that is was under a duty to ensure streets were designed to accommodate current and future increases in the size of refuse collection vehicles (no such duty exists)

Despite all the talk of sustainable development, the prevailing development pattern was of low-density car dependent sprawl. 

He referred to Patrick Geddes, said by some to be the father of the planning system.  He had championed looking at the world in a systemic, and holistic way, rather than as isolated components, using the “Valley Section” to demonstrate the system, and “thinking machines” to look at ideas and problems from different angles.  Robert wondered whether he would regard the current system as “Kakotopia” – where the worst possible conditions exist:

  • An educational system in the built environment which creates professional silos, and fails to instil regard or respect for the essential contribution made by other specialisms.
  • A system of legislation in the UK which creates, from the outset, division in responsibilities through separate planning authorities, waste collection authorities, drainage boards, sewerage companies, suds adoption and approval bodies, lighting authorities, highway authorities, parking authorities and so on.   A situation worsened by numerous silo-based statutory duties.
  • A commuted-sum system which, by placing a price on any item in a street that exceeds a very basic and utilitarian specification, acts as a tax on liveability and sustainability.
  • Technical standards that are prepared in isolation, without regard to the overall interest of society, or other technical standards, and which override not only the visions in masterplans, but high-level central and local government policies and statutory duties.

It was difficult to see how this, taken together, could be construed as providing a basis for Sustainable Development.

 

  PART 1: OBJECTIVES

 

  Global Urban Design Framework

Raj Rooprai gave the delegates a first sight of the Global Framework for Urban Design – to be launched at the 2019 National Urban Design Conference. 

(more in September)

Objectives – Mobility and Inclusion

On the subject of mobility and inclusion, Brenda Puech warned that key documents such as the Department for Transport’s Inclusive Mobility (2002) and Guidance on the use of Tactile Paving (2002) were out of date.   More recent guidance produced by non-governmental bodies, is better, but is non-statutory. 

The established government guidance in the main, goes no further than covering the widths of footways and crossing types, ignoring both the wider and more practical problems faced by disabled people.  Most crossing points have puddles, some street furniture is difficult to see, conventional side road junctions (designed according to the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges or Design Bulletin 32) involve a very long path across the mouth of the junction and are difficult for blind and elderly people, it may also be impossible for a wheelchair user to cross a sideroad or street except at an official crossing point where there is a dropped kerb.   There are standard design details for vehicle crossovers, that are still required by most highway authorities, which interfere with the footway and cause great inconvenience for wheelchair users; problems were specifically mentioned to in Manual for Streets and addressed by an alternative design for a vehicle crossover that does not interrupt the footway.    Brenda concluded by calling for updated design guidance that puts disabled people first; as required in law.

 

  Neighbourhoods not housing estates

Noha Nasser, from Mela, an organisation devoted to bringing together people from diverse backgrounds into the animation, codesign and co-programming of public space, warned that it was warned that it was impossible to understand towns and cities from one narrow perspective alone. She opened her presentation by listing several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including

11. Sustainable cities and communities

3. Good Health and Wellbeing

5. Gender Equality

10. Reduced Inequalities

There were other challenges such as loneliness, with 13 percent of us feeling lonely most of the time and including many elderly people feeling lonely: all age groups should be engaged in the making of neighbourhoods.

What stops us making progress:

  • Pre-occupation with making places for the car the priority, rather than people and creation of convivial places
  • Social infrastructure – the facilities that can bring together – perceived as having no commercial value, and somehow costing too much. 
  • A perception in local authorities that S106 funds are better spent on hard infrastructure such as junctions and highway improvements.
  • A failure to provide sufficient housing: for people who are on local authority housing lists, or for the wide range of types of people including people on low incomes, elderly people, and extended families.   People are living longer and increasingly on their own; towns and cities needed to be designed and managed to reflect this.
  • A perception that meaningful community engagement opens a can of worms that can delay development or cost too much upfront.

What could professionals do, she asked: 

  • Recognise that the demographics are changing
  • Work much more alongside local people as the norm, rather than the exception.
  • Design places for all of life not just for sleeping.

 

  Public Health

Rachel Toms, Public Health England provided a concise overview of current challenges modern lifestyles present to health and wellbeing.

Objectives

  • Reducing levels of preventable ill-health
  • This places a strain on tax-payers and affects the individual quality of life.
  • Reducing health inequalities
  • Between parts of Liverpool and Surrey there is a difference of 19 years healthy life expectancy.

Built Environment and transport

  • Some aspects of the built environment support health
  • Other things undermine health – we, in the built environment sector, are part of the supply chain that leads to obesity, diabetes heart disease, and mental health problems.
  • Employment gives people better health outcomes.

Contribution that could be made by the built environment

  • Increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary lifestyles
  • Reducing loneliness and social isolation
  • Creating a food environment that makes it easy and affordable for people to obtain healthy food
  • Contact with nature and access to green spaces
  • Resolving hazards – from trip hazards to air pollution.

The main challenges:

  1. The formal systems: the education system, the regulatory system, professional accreditation, funding systems etc.
  2. Custom and practice: what is normal practice in the built environment sector.

 

  Systems thinking

Loretta von der Tann, UCL, introduced her area of research: of the use systems thinking in the built environment.  The traditional approach to the built environment is to split the system into parts. But a system is more than the sum of the parts. If you only study the parts, you will not understand the whole. The interactions and combined effect of the parts of the systems will have been ignored. 

Loretta introduced a number of concepts:

Complex systems and Emergent Behaviour - Many interactions are between people, which makes the system “complex” and difficult to predict. What the system will do is difficult to understand: one can only understand it after it has happened. This type of occurrence is called emergent behaviour. Emergent behaviour can be both positive and negative including unanticipated and sometimes catastrophic failures.

Boundaries - We tend to set boundaries around our problems: both internal and external boundaries. An example is with disabilities and how they are categorised and thresholds set for the purposes of granting benefit.

Classification and categorisation - We tend naturally to try to classify and categorise things: it eases communication and helps understanding, but also it has inherent biases.  An example is the term “urban” – there are many different definitions of urban – size, density, administration. What is a city? There are several answers. Classification systems are based on the perspectives of the people who devise the systems, and inevitably will lead to a limited representation of the world.  Once established, classification systems are difficult to change, and act as a barrier. We tend not to question the categories. 

Feedback loops are important in improving performance but are not normal practice in the built environment, where project management thinking predominates:- a one-way process: from initiation, development, through to implementation, monitoring and closure. The alternatives are to think in terms of lifecycles, with feedback loops. Urban areas are, after all, unending projects. The definition of a problem and purpose of a system is subjective, so it is important that systems should incorporate continuous learning.

Path dependence … how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by past decisions, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.

Time - We tend to do what seems efficient for the short term, but ignore the long term.

Scale –  from strategic to detailed level, questions include whether macro considerations should dictate the micro or the reverse; and at what level of scale should people be involved.

System thinking can

  • create new boundary questions: internal and external boundaries
  • create opportunities for foresighted planning beyond demand-supply thinking
  • allow complementary or differing world views without the necessity of merging them
  • allow the involvement and integration of different disciplines as well as the general public in problem solving processes
  • change the conceptualization of time.

Loretta illustrated the possibilities of a systems approach with two examples:

Singapore Underground Plan – where the city government, recognising that it is running out of space, is planning to use the sub-surface for transportation, storage warehouses and industry, leaving the surface free for housing, offices, community facilities and green open space. They undertook a world benchmarking study and before producing a masterplan.

Netherlands Environment and Planning Act – the Netherlands Government has recognised problems with its environmental legislation.  It comprises dozens of laws and hundreds of regulations for land use, residential areas, infrastructure, the environment, nature and water. Each has its own starting points, procedures and requirements. This makes the legislation too complex for the people who are expected to use it. A single Environment and Planning Act will simplify and consolidate over 15 laws. They have a focus on the quality of the physical environment as a whole.  The legislation looks at development and feedback, creating more space for people to do more about their built environment, trying to capture the positive side of emergence.

 

  PART 2: DELIVERY

 

  Strategic Urban Design and Skills

Paul Reynolds, Urben, and UDG Honorary Secretary reviewed the current Housing and Economic Land Availability Assessment stages as outlined in the Planning Practice Guidance

Step 1 - Call for Sites – landowners/promoters invited to put forward their land for consideration for inclusion in the plan.  The landowners have to fill in a standard form. The result is a scatter of sites. Some landowners will go so far as to commission plans and a prospectus to demonstrate how their land might be developed.   

Step 2 - Desktop Assessment – undertaken by the local authority, verifying what was put on the forms, the densities, issues such as flooding and access, looking at the total numbers of dwellings, against the requirement to demonstrate 5 years supply of housing land. The sites will then be scored, and the sites selected for inclusion.  

We are building on the least-bad sites. No one tries to identify the very best places in a town or city for development. 

The Urban Design Group led by Roger Evans is advocating a Strategic Urban Design approach that would involve identifying the most sustainably located sites from the outset, rather than relying on developers and landowners, and focus on creating sustainable urban form – transport links, the overall landscape setting and so on.  What is not needed is a choice between the fields put forward by farmer A or farmer B, but consideration of the best sites in the area.  Such an approach will require greater use of  compulsory purchase orders.

Skilled staff within local authorities are critical to the good design under any system. The UDG-Place Alliance Skills survey demonstrated major weaknesses in the skills available to local authority.

 

  What stops masterplans being delivered?

What stops masterplans from being delivered, was the question addressed by Katja Stille, UDG Treasurer, and Director at Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, and more specifically, why is the intent of the masterplan not delivered. Things go wrong between the masterplan and what happens on the ground, she argued. Problems lie between the vision, the design intent, and the technical guidance.

Masterplans need to be site specific, character driven, distinctive, and create the conservation areas of the future; but instead, we have generic guidance that is based on standard suburban development models, and there is an inconsistency between planning and technical guidance.

Councillors and communities often say they like historic environments, but the technical guidance on aspects such as kerb radii, pavement widths, building lines and setbacks, the ability to build right up to the of the footway, or for parts of buildings to oversail the footway means these environments cannot be built. Instead, the standards enforce a low-density suburban model. Examples include standards for parking that require two parking spaces for each unit but prohibit on-street and rear-courtyard parking. These place a death-sentence on any vision for the sorts of development that people want.

The masterplanning stage starts out with collaboration between urban designers, planners, engineers, landscape architects and so on, with the masterplanner pulling everyone together. At the detailed design and construction stage, drainage, highways and other practical considerations come to the fore, and unless there are people who continue to draw attention to the overall vision, things can go wrong. Katja illustrated this with a Masterplan which incorporated a tree lined avenue, which had been realised as a treeless street with a grass swale, when in the final stages of design and construction it was realised that the drainage would not work.

“We need someone who fights through the whole process for the masterplan vision and quality of place, acting as a policeman.  It can be anyone: someone on the client team, an urban designer, a landscape architect, an engineer, but it needs to be someone who understands the wider impact of every single decision.” She said. A minor engineering decision can get rid of an avenue or get rid of the sense of place entirely.

“We need to check the technical guidance so that we can deliver the places we like”. Technical guidance should be robustly tested: does it allow us to deliver the places we love? Can we deliver these places? Katja reflected sadly, that at the moment, we probably can’t.

                      

  Places, Streets and Movement

John Dales, Urban Movement, began by quoting Ian Nairn: “everyone is a specialist whose aim is not primarily to achieve the end-product.”

We cannot create the places we actually like.  Traffic engineers go to Paris, walk up the Champs Elysee – there is no chance of building anything like that in the UK. 

Every transport planner learns that transport is the means not the end; but in practice, transport is all that is thought about.

Most local authorities will say that our decisions are governed by our policies. All the policies say the right thing: pedestrians at the top, motor vehicles at the bottom. But councillors who sign off these policies, focus on congestion, parking spaces, and sideline the policies in favour of political expediency.

Councils are massive bureaucracies, where the planners are at odds with the engineers, and the conservation officers. There are very few authorities where anyone is trying to bring these individuals and departments together. It is important that each understand the other’s perspective or even know who is whom.

In our policies we now put place on a par with movement… no way is this true in practice. Manual for Streets gives no clue as to what sense of place is in any particular location: this is not enough to balance hard data on traffic flows, congestion figures.

We are damaging the walking environment because we feel there’s a need for electric vehicles. Having made a policy decision that we need electric vehicles, the infrastructure is being introduced at the expense of space on the footway.

 

  Green space and public open space

Jane Thomas asked why, given that green infrastructure is so important, it is so difficult to obtain.  She illustrated a successful masterplan at Modbury which included protected greenspace and public open space right from the outset through community involvement.  And followed this by a larger scale example, where the potential to deal with flooding had been blocked by administrative boundaries: attenuation ponds would have been needed in land within the adjoining local authority.  Climate change would bring increased frequency of flooding: problems that needed to be addressed at a landscape scale.

 

  SuDS and Waster Sensitive Urban Design

Sustainable Drainage Systems and Water Sensitive Urban Design (SuDS and WSUD) are becoming critically important with changes in rainfall regimes leading to increased flood risk, and more frequent drought.  In the UK the introduction of SuDS and WSUD has been championed in the UK by CIRIA, the Construction Industry Research and Information Association, in publications such as the freely available SuDS Manual.

There is the opportunity for more attractive, liveable environments that offer people a better quality of life; improvements in natural habitats; the control of water quantity, and an improvement in water quality; and Sustainable water supply – using waste water and surface water as a resource.

Paul Shaffer outlined the aspirations and concerns:

  • Awareness is poor, and built environment professionals often view SuDS as risky, even though there is a great deal of information and experience on successful schemes.
  • Too often SuDS are thought of in terms of infiltration only,
  • Disciplines are fragmented
  • Too often what is described as a SuDS scheme is basically a drainage scheme, with none of the multiple benefits that they can bring.
  • Some of the infrastructure used in some schemes is needlessly ugly.
  • National SuDS standards in England are weak, though better in Wales
  • Adoption of SuDS has still not been resolved
  • There is a pre-occupation with the initial costs of SuDS and land-take rather than the consideration of costs vs benefits.  
  • SuDS are not considered early enough in schemes; rather than being integrated into developments from the outset at which stage the costs can be minimised and the benefits maximised.  SuDS are often considered only at the later stages of projects, when it is too late to create well designed schemes with multiple benefits.
  • Planning submissions are often poor in quality

 

  Trees

Jim Smith, Forestry Commission and Trees and Design Action Group, spoke of the lack of data on trees: we don’t know how many trees are planted across the country or how many are felled, but this is to change with forthcoming legislation. There is an Urban Tree Manual on how to provide and plant trees for future climate change resilience and biosecurity,  and a guide on good practice on how trees can be efficiently accommodated into the highway is to be published shortly.   Very often trees can be easily accommodated if there is a specification and it is planned. The issues in Sheffield have arisen from a poorly written contract; in Birmingham, there are no problems with trees, as the contract specification carefully detailed engineering solutions.

 

  Using the subsurface of towns and cities

Liz Reynolds, Think Deep UK, spoke about the great potential for the positive use of the space between our towns and cities, and the complexity

There is a mythology attached to the subsurface, what we think is there, and the attitudes people have to using underground spaces. There is geology, natural resources, minerals, chalk that filters the water supply, and natural reservoirs. There is industrial waste, utilities, transport networks, deep foundations for tall buildings. There is much going on, and much competition for space,

There are several cities that are taking an organised approach to use the sub-surface effectively notably Singapore and Tokyo.

To make the most of the subsurface, we need to work together – geologists, hydrologists, geotechnical engineers, lawyers in relation to property rights. In planning there are questions as to how we coordinate the competing interests. Mega basements are an example, though at the moment, a uniquely London phenomenon. 

Currently, if the government wants to acquire the land below your property there is a nominal amount payable of £50.

There are places where we already spend significant amounts of time below ground, and there is the potential to create much better places, and stitch our cities together in a better way. Transport systems should fit together in a sequential way. There are no design standards for underground spaces

Underground spaces should be sustainable, safe, welcoming, legible in terms of wayfinding, comfortable (in terms of lighting, heating, ventilation), inspiring and enduring.

Further details on recent events on Planning the subsurface, designing the subsurface are on the Think Deep UK Website.

 

  DISCUSSION

Points raised included:

Off the peg “solutions” tending to drive out collaborative design solutions:  the scope of design ranges from an act of free-flowing creativity through to the use of pre-configured designs and off-the-peg products and “solutions”. Off the peg solutions are strongly marketed, whereas the community involvement-vision-design model is not.

People not understanding problems and proposing inappropriate or ineffective solutions. “Reputation management” can pressurize individuals and organisations into doing something irrespective of whether what they do will actually address the problem. 

Solving one problem and creating others – such as blocking off access through a housing estate to reduce antisocial behaviour, leads to reduced walking and potentially, worse public health.

Failure to consider energy use / greenhouse gas emissions.

Funding not always wisely spent

The fact that the majority of highway authorities have still to adopt a Manual for Streets approach to the design of their highways is a question that needs to be addressed to the professional institutions.