Careers Advice: The importance of having urban design skills/knowledge as a planner

Written by: Luan Deda
Published on: 30 Jul 2018

Urban design

Urban design and town planning are intertwined more than ever before. Both aim to create better places to live and work in our communities. Challenges such as the need for housing, the shortage of developable land and the disparities of housing standards in comparison to other western European countries call for a different approach in plan-making and execution. I personally believe that planners who are equipped with urban design knowledge and practical skills can make the difference to face those challenges.

Urban design now plays an important role in contributing to some of the core planning objectives of our cities and neighbourhoods. Intensification of our urban centres at appropriate densities; quality of streets, neighbourhoods and homes; access and movement to and from work and leisure; and most importantly encouraging a healthy life and sustainability are all issues that are dealt with through urban design amongst other skills. Recently, there has also been an emphasis on urban design and making places in key planning policy initiatives. The London Plan and the revamped National Planning Policy Framework have noticeably placed urban design to the top of the plan making and delivery agenda. Therefore, it has become important for planners to embody such knowledge.

As an urban designer, I came to realise at one point in my career that it was very important for me to know more about planning. I took part on a new pilot scheme in 2011 to become a chartered member of the RTPI even though I had not studied planning before. That transformed my understanding of urban design and placemaking and opened up my career opportunities. I believe the mirrored process is of similar importance. It has become increasingly more important for town planners to acquire more knowledge and skills in Urban Design. Those who do already are reaping the awards as far as their career progress is concerned and their contribution to planning.

This emphasis on urban design means there are more situations where policy is challenged by design arguments, rightly or wrongly. For planners to part take in such discussions they need good urban design knowledge and skills. The education system has already embraced this as urban design has become a normal part of the curriculum in many universities that teach accredited planning courses. This has opened up the opportunities for career changes between town planning and urban design as is the case with one of my colleagues who switched to an urban design post from a Planning background.

I can mention a range of urban design-related subjects that can make a difference in the work of a planner which are by no means exhaustive. How to judge and argue what is appropriate density, scale and massing and how to assess the impact on existing community are key examples. Others are considerations of why an alternative mix of uses to that recommended on policy is more appropriate and contributes better to the wider community.

Urban design is usually site-specific and can challenge more general ‘blanket’ policy guidance. How the street works and what is the relationship between buildings and space? What can make a difference between a positive and poor public realm? How can character be assessed and how can design address character in a progressive way? There are numerous examples of successful new proposals that respond to character in a unique way without necessarily replicating what is around already.

The unique role of landscape within the public realm is another key topic, as well as knowledge of new digital tools that help Urban Designers to formulate more effective strategies. I have worked in the past with SpaceSyntax or HollisticCity which are only a few examples of very intelligent technological tools to enhance the design of urban spaces.

Such knowledge can be acquired by formal training or “on the job” working with urban designers. At Boyer we organise regular internal CPD events where our design team presents different subjects to the planning team and vice versa. So I encourage all planners to keep up to date with urban design knowledge and try where possible to take on practical tasks. Because:

  • Urban Design is at the forefront of the agenda of planning and transforming our cities

  • It deals with more practical, site specific and tangible aspects of placemaking

  • And is cool….

Luan Deda is associate director in the design team at consultancy Boyer