Recently, Design Council was asked to attend an RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) housing debate in Birmingham that posed the question ‘quality or quantity?’ – a proposition that hints at our national problem; there are not enough homes to accommodate our growing population, and too many of those built are of mediocre quality.

It is important to be clear about what we mean by quality. For some, it is the narrowest definition of the appearance of buildings and how they fit in within the character of an area. For Design Council, quality relates to much more than that: it is about a robust civic identity, a meaningful public realm, and an accessible infrastructure system, as well as residential health and wellbeing, diversity, safety, and economic prosperity – essentially good places.

Places that foster and embrace communities and build upon local qualities play a vital role in tackling social disadvantage, minimising risks to physical and mental health, regenerating environments, and creating economic resilience. In particular, a robust public realm can cultivate a civic identity and strengthen social and cultural experiences, but it can also provide the framework for an economy to flourish. Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities ‘liveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repel life. And this is a principle vital not only to the ways cities behave socially, but also to the ways they behave economically.’

Places that foster and embrace communities and build upon local qualities play a vital role in tackling social disadvantage

But the UK housing market is reliant on a formulaic approach to urban development that provides certainty in a time of inflexible policy, market instability, and high-pressured delivery. For many providers, it is more comfortable and less risky to deliver the same type of development over and over again. But this approach to housing delivery ensures that the mistakes of the past are repeated, that places do not reflect modern communities, and that today’s most pressing issues, such as inequity and climate change, remain in the background. Consequently, we are creating new buildings, streets, neighbourhoods and in some cases entirely new cities that do not meet the needs of local people who intend to use them and will not foster the sustained urban life necessary for places to thrive.

A fundamental re-think of how housing is planned, delivered and managed is needed. This should include innovation within the planning system, pursuing funding and financing alternatives and embracing the efficiencies of modern methods of construction. However, no matter the system, we need to place people at the centre, prioritising the human experience.  By doing this we can move away from the mistakes of the past, create places that can grow, and foster communities that will thrive.

A fundamental re-think of how housing is planned, delivered and managed is needed

Growing capacity and widening understanding
Local authority budget cuts and under-resourcing are a major roadblock to delivering the number of homes and type of places needed across the UK. Since 2010, planning department budgets in both London and metropolitan boroughs have almost halved, while housing targets have practically doubled. Unsurprisingly, most local authorities are struggling to keep up, and in 2020 half of councils are expected to miss their targets and may face penalties. So, at a time when government resourcing, particularly design resourcing, is at a critical level, ensuring delivery, and subsequently unlocking future funding, often wins out over good design. This is a false economy and provides only temporary relief for what is sure to be a much bigger problem.

We need to invest in design skills and capacity in local authority planning departments, including support and training for our councillors, who so often make decisions on development that will shape our urban and rural places for generations to come.

Creating places that work for everyone

Towns and cities in the UK are not only growing but changing. In addition to an ageing population, ethnic diversity is increasing, more people are living with a disability, and family structures are shifting; consequently, the current urbanism model is no longer fit for purpose, and we are delivering housing and spaces that are outdated at the time of completion.

Design Council has championed the values of inclusive design in the built environment for many years. This means going beyond access requirements to consider (and attempt to meet) the diverse needs of entire communities, ultimately creating places that work better for everybody – whether that place is a school, office, park, street, care home, bus route, or train station. Our online training in inclusive environments seeks to promote an engaged, locally driven approach to urban design and architecture. This begins with understanding who our new populations are, how they live their lives, and how best to design places in response.

We are creating new buildings, streets, neighbourhoods and in some cases entirely new cities that do not meet the needs of local people who intend to use them

Planning has become increasingly abstracted from the people and neighbourhoods it affects. But bringing a range of different stakeholders together to co-design services and places creates better results and shared outcomes. At Design Council we use different workshop techniques to enable people to understand the decision-making process better and provide them the opportunity to advocate for their neighbourhoods.

Those creating new buildings and developments have the responsibility to better what is already there, positively and meaningfully contributing to existing communities. This involves understanding the overlap and intertwining between the social, environmental and economic systems and urban development. Through this understanding we can ensure that the places we are building are not only delivering affordable housing, but also addressing societal challenges such as social deprivation, mental and physical health, economic resilience, and landscape regeneration. At Design Council we work to articulate and share the value and impact of design. We develop guidance and deliver training and advice to communities, government and housing providers on the value of good design, helping them find opportunities to create better places.

This article was originally published in The Journal of the Town and Country Planning Association.

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