Urban Design Library

The Essex Design Guide

Urban Design Library #32
Essex Planning Officers Association

The Essex Design Guide represents a significant achievement in planning practice for four main reasons. The first is its early start in 1973. The second is its remarkable longevity. It has been substantially revised and updated on three separate occasions and reinforced by several reprints and the issue of special supplements. Each version was implemented by a different generation. It is still being applied and may still be so after 50 years. The third reason is that it has not just been about Essex but has offered a coherent design philosophy which learned from, and converged with, other progressive trends. Finally, it has been put into effect in a large number of schemes throughout Essex.

The 1973 Guide

The first version of the Essex guide arose from a convergence of two forces at the end of the 1960s. The County Planning department had started to put together a design team to take advantage of the powers granted by the 1968 Civic Amenities Act. County councillors had also become concerned about the potential loss of character in traditional Essex villages through unsympathetic development. The design team was asked to address this and it became clear to them that not only was a substantial document required but that it would need to change the County’s highways standards, which were inimical to traditional urban form. Achieving this was one of the guide’s key achievements.

The document laid down systematic physical and visual design principles and criteria. It argued that open space, fresh air and sunlight should be achieved through design rather than fixed standards. It proposed that for all residential development in the lower density ‘rural situation’, space should be enclosed by trees. In the higher density ‘urban situation’, space should be enclosed by buildings brought closer to the road, with significant back gardens, normally 100m2 in size. Building forms and materials should reflect, but not mimic, local traditions.

The real innovation was the design of narrower, low-speed access roads. The mews court, serving a maximum of 25 dwellings, was Britain’s first true shared surface. Unfortunately, access roads were to be connected together in cul-de-sac dominated layouts as this was seen as almost the only way of eliminating through traffic and ensuring low speeds.

The immediate challenge was the 1974 reorganisation of local government when implementation became the responsibility of the new district councils. Rather than formal adoption by each district, individual planning officers took up and promoted the guide, and implementation was not necessarily uniform. Unusually, on their own initiative a small number of housebuilders adopted the guide. A significant number of schemes were built that could be seen as true exemplars of the guide.

Another challenge came from substantial groups within housebuilding firms and the architectural profession, who feared a loss of freedom of action and the promotion of traditional, if not pastiche, styles. It did not succeed, principally because the alternative was not architectural creativity but the standard volume housebuilders’ products and engineers’ roads.

The 1997 Guide

By the early 1990s, the need for a revision of the old guide was becoming clear. Urban design thinking had made substantial advances. Traffic calming was now established practice. The first full revision of the Essex Design Guide was published in 1997. It had the same message and philosophy as the original but there was one major change: cul-de-sac based layouts were now seen as definitely undesirable. This was argued from principles of permeability and legibility. Vehicle speed was to be controlled not just through narrow carriageway widths and curvature, but the whole appearance of the road from its 3D design, illustrated by perspective drawings that emphasised the enclosure of space by buildings and planting for each road type.

Other changes in content might best be described as a tightening up of the original policy. The use of site appraisals and appropriately skilled architects was stressed and a more explicit explanation of the character of Essex provided. The one key requirement that would change things decisively on the ground was to make continuous frontage compulsory over 20 dwellings per hectare (dph): terraced houses should be the norm.

Another principle involved back gardens and car parking. Although layouts might be tightly urban, it meant that land use overall was predominantly green and this green space was both private and useful. If the house types were shallow in plan, this not only provided natural light and ventilation for the building but made the garden a square shape. It could then accommodate a garage accessed from the front through an archway, avoiding rear lanes and parking courts.

The fairly narrow local roads recommended by the guide did not allow for much visitor parking. The proposed solution was parking squares designed as attractively paved urban spaces that would look good without cars in them.

Implementation of the 1997 guide depended on the commitment of planning officers. There were a number of small but significant examples in Brentwood, Tendring and Uttlesford but the big picture was in Chelmsford, Colchester and Braintree. Here, the new guide received strong political and officer support, and was adopted as supplementary planning guidance and later absorbed into these councils’ own planning documents. From 2000 onwards most new residential development in these districts conformed to the guide’s requirements.

The Essex Design Guide in the New Millennium

In 2005, the 1997 guide was reprinted in a squarer, thicker format. There were some minor changes to accord with the evolution of government policy but it was essentially the same guide. In 2007, an Urban Place Supplement was published. It dealt with developments in excess of 50 dph. It continued the design aims of the main guide, while taking account of the latest policy concerns, notably sustainability. In 2018 the guide was again revised and placed online, incorporating elements of the Urban Place Supplement and Manual for Streets.

The importance of the guide has always lain in its emphasis on principles and criteria, amounting almost to a toolkit for designing both buildings and spaces. Although it has proved particularly successful at delivering traditional form at densities of 25-35 dph, it also works beyond these. Many see its particular achievement as meeting the ongoing challenge of road and parking requirements, and for this reason alone it can be read with advantage both within and outside Essex.

URBAN DESIGN 153 Winter 2020 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 153 Winter 2020

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The Essex Design Guide Publication Urban Design Group
Essex County Council
Reviewed By
Tony Hall, Emeritus Professor of Town Planning at Anglia Ruskin University, currently writing a history of the Essex Design Guide