Skip to content

How to make cities more liveable - lessons from Oxford

How to make cities more liveable - lessons from Oxford

15 May 2015 Written by By Victoria Lee Lead Programme Manager, Architecture and Built Environment

Oxford City Council in partnership with Design Council Cabe established the Oxford Design Review Panel (ODRP) in 2014. The City Council and Cabe are committed to promoting high quality design and helping to create better places and environments in the city. I asked Keith Bradley and Joanna van Heyningen to share some of the insights they unearthed in their roles as Chairs of the ODRP.

What are the opportunities and challenges of working with an internationally renowned and historic city such as Oxford?

JvH - Oxford is unique: of course it's got the university with its world class buildings, but it's a large city, and outside the centre there are huge variety of developments, from the Victorian streets of north Oxford to pre- and post-war estates to the east and south. Some of it is quite rural. There is the opportunity to help Oxford develop as a fine modern city within its historic context, and the challenge of helping to bring up the standards of some of the lesser known parts. Traffic is a very big issue, particularly as it does not fall within the remit of the City Council's responsibility. And, of course, housing: there is a desperate need for more housing, and it is not obvious where it should go; the Green Belt is at threat.

KB - The older historic areas of the city are less challenging than the more recent outlying suburbs and villages. The former have more inherent rules, guidelines and expectations, while the latter have more interrelated environmental issues, such as social need, transportation and regeneration. The fringes need our attention as much as the commercial centre, universities and colleges. 

What do you think are the key issues that need to be addressed to ensure design quality is more integral to the development and growth of Oxford as a successful place to live, work and visit?

The whole city needs to be considered in context.

Joanna van Heyningen, co-chair of the ODRP

JvH - The whole city needs to be considered in context - it’s important to think beyond the edge of an individual site and consider pedestrian, bike and public transport connections. You need to think about making places, not just buildings. 

Employ a design team, not just architects, from the start. Landscape should be key in place-making and decision making, as it's about so much more than choosing plants. Finally, be brave. Good design is not just about problem solving, it's about having a clear vision of what is right. 

KB - An ‘Integrated Public Realm’ – [allowing for] connectivity, both socially and environmentally, [and] all beautifully executed.

What have been the challenges, positive outcomes and learning that have been gained from the ODRP over the past year? 

JvH - The whole experience has been good. Oxford City Council's planning and heritage officers were supportive from the start, and we have all learned from one another. This has been very positive. The greatest challenges have been when projects are presented to us that are poor and ill thought through. ODRP can help to bring about significant improvements in these if we see them well before a planning application is made. Our letters only contain comments that we have made face to face.

The evidence is that we have been able to steer projects helpfully, and that this approach is particularly fruitful the earlier we see a project in advance of a full planning application. It is much more difficult if the project has already been submitted. I think one of the most positive outcomes from our year's work has been that clients and design teams have come to realise that we are there to help them, and that they stand a greater chance of achieving planning permission if they have been open to the process. 

Having the conversations early is key to a successful Design Review.

Keith Bradley, co-chair of the ODRP

KB - Having the conversations early is key to a successful Design Review. On the more significant schemes, a follow up review or series of reviews allows discussion on the key design stages and has ensured coherence in both design and review responses. 

What cities [nationally or globally] inspire you?

JvH – [My favourites include] Copenhagen, Newcastle, Xian, Lucca, Bordeaux and San Francisco.

KB - I live in Bath, which is a fantastic historically important model city, but has (like Oxford) problems with contemporary life! I mostly work in London which is a great example of an evolving city responding positively to change. Internationally, New York (Manhattan Island) for lessons in high density living. Copenhagen and Helsinki have that Scandinavian holistic built environment, people and nature meeting ethic.

Which particular cities do you think have successfully delivered growth, bringing together contemporary well designed development and heritage?

JvH - Copenhagen has integrated its heritage districts and expanded its areas that are on the periphery, like Orestad. 

The legacy of the 1992 Olympic Games and the respect for the Cerda plan in Barcelona highlights successfully delivered growth. Finally, Portland in Oregon, with its Pearl District, is a great combination of both new and old. 

Examples of successful cities

  • Orestad, on the periphery of Copenhagen, has expanded successfully.
  • The Cerda plan in Barcelona shows great growth.
  • Portland is highlighted as a great example of the old and the new coming together.

KB - The World Heritage city of Vienna seems to done a very good job of high quality urban expansion. I’d also choose Berlin, for its cultural and heritage regeneration.  

Summing up

JvH - This first year of ODRP has been rewarding. The way we conduct our reviews is very open - and this has led to some really good, non-confrontational and constructive conversations between the applicants, their design teams, the council and ourselves. 

KB – [The outcome we wish to derive is that] the Cabe Design Review process and protocols help Oxford achieve a higher quality of design. 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Want to keep up with the latest from the Design Council?

Sign up