Careers advice: Design and Planning

Written by: Kathy MacEwen
Published on: 25 Mar 2019


I started out as a career grade planner working for the London Borough of Camden and worked my way through policy and development management until I arrived in the conservation and design team. I discovered I could combine my love of design with my planning career, and have worked on design issues ever since. There are a lot of opportunities to get involved in design and it’s important not to see design as something separate from your planning career. Being more confident about design will help your planning work whichever part of the planning process you work in.  

Design is part of planning

As a planner you know a lot about place making, and about how to analyse the many elements that contribute to good development, but you may feel uncertain about assessing and discussing design and turn to your urban design officer or conservation officer, or design team, for their expertise. But looking at and understanding buildings and places is part of planning. As the National Planning Policy Framework used to say: “Good design is indivisible from good planning”. I’d like to encourage all planners to become better informed about design and get more involved in design. This is true for policy planners too.  

Get more confident about negotiating with architects

You will probably be in discussions with architects for a significant amount of time in your career, but there is a divide between the professions in our terminology and approach. Get to know more about the architect’s processes and terminology, read online architectural magazines such as the AJ or RIBA journal, and learn about the RIBA Plan of Works and its stages. Put together a glossary of words.

Think about design and place making

Good design draws together the many strands of place making and is the foundation for successful places. There is nothing like going to see recent development to understand the impact of our decisions, good and bad. When you visit developments, think about how well they are connected to the wider place, how easy they are to navigate, whether they are delightful to be in, how they will work for families or teenagers. Don’t limit your concerns to height and massing and materials.

Take the opportunities on offer

There are a lot of opportunities to increase our knowledge and understanding of design, both in the office and out of it. There are courses being run by a number of organisations such as Urban Design London, Historic England, RTPI and the Design Network. These are essential ways to become more involved and confident about design, and an opportunity to talk to other planners and designers. Check out all the design awards across the country, and understand why they won. What are the elements that need to be in place to ensure good design.

Be willing to question your views

We live in places which are facing changing demands and needs. In order to respond you have to be willing to question your own views, and to interrogate what might be possible. Find examples of new buildings in conservation areas, find examples of exemplar housing, of great public realm. Perhaps they will have found new answers that you can suggest and use. Be curious.


A fantastic way to really look at a place is to draw it. Taking photos is a quick and easy way to help remember places, but from time to time take a paper and pencil and start to draw. You may find you start to see things you hadn’t noticed before. It doesn’t matter about the quality of the drawing, it’s just taking the time to see things that matters.

Kathy MacEwen is a Public Practice associate and has been working at Hounslow Council since April 2018 as a principal urban designer in the Planning team.