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What makes a place great?

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Formed at The Bartlett in the wake of AHRC-funded research into the impact of CABE's work, the Place Alliance has been driving an ambitious agenda for place quality in England for the past five years.

What makes a place great?

Greenness in the built environment (notably the presence of trees and grass, water, and high-quality open space) should be required through formal tools of design governance, says the Place Alliance in its new report.

What makes a place great?

Façade continuity (façades form a continuous and coherent street wall) should be aspired to. This can be achieved through informal tools of design governance such as design reviews or design guidance.

In 2013, the Farrell Review commented on the leadership gap left by the demise of CABE in 2011. Inspired by the review, and drawing on research conducted at The Bartlett, one of the organisations that has been attempting to fill that gap is the Place Alliance.

Set up by Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning and Urban Design at The Bartlett, its supporters include more than 100 organisations, from professional institutions to public bodies. In 2015, the alliance won the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement at the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Awards for Research Excellence.

At the time of its founding, Carmona described the alliance as an attempt to fill the gap where – with the demise of CABE – there was no longer a clear national voice on design quality. He said that rather than a formal, top-down institution, he wanted an alliance-style arrangement that could strengthen networks and collaboration within and between existing professional bodies and agencies. By being based at The Bartlett, the alliance would be able to sidestep the perception that it was aligned with a particular professional agenda.

After 120 delegates representing 80 organisations turned up to its first ‘Big Meet’ in a huge tent erected in the UCL Quad, The Bartlett agreed to provide a £20,000 annual grant to pay for a member of staff to run the alliance on a part-time basis (a role initially carried out by The Bartlett School of Planning’s Lucy Natarajan and latterly by Valentina Giordano, both of whom have been critical in shaping the direction of the alliance, says Carmona).

There are some developers that are excellent and produce amazing projects, but a lot need to be pushed. And if the local authority doesn’t do that, then nobody will.

Matthew Carmona

What makes a place great?

There is conflicting evidence relating to the use of shared spaces to levels of both actual and perceived safety, and more research is required to fully understand what the Place Alliance calls 'beware' place qualities.

Shaping policy debate

The alliance’s scope and influence has been growing ever since, and it has just hosted its ninth Big Meet. Carmona has served as special advisor to the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment’s inquiry into Building Better Places. The alliance was also the forum for concerns about the proposed watering down of government policy on design in the recently revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Following inputs coordinated by the alliance, the changes were reversed and the relevant paragraphs strengthened instead.

In 2018, its report Design Skills in English Local Authorities, which was part-funded by the Urban Design Group, found that almost half of local authorities have no dedicated in-house urban design capacity at all, and of those that do, in most cases a single officer must cover design as part of a larger role. The last audit of this kind was carried out by CABE back in 2003, and the new report has helped raise the alarm at a time when the UK government plans to grow the number of new homes from 217,000 per year in 2017 to 300,000 per year by 2025 to address the housing shortage.

Government systematically collects data on the number of planning applications and the speed of processing them but not on the composition or skill levels of planning departments. “But these are the sorts of qualitative factors that determine whether the planning system can work properly,” Carmona told The Bartlett Review in 2018.

Speed has nothing to do with creating high-quality places, he explained: “Around the country, we see large schemes going through that are very poor quality. There are some developers that are excellent and produce amazing projects, but a lot need to be pushed. And if the local authority doesn’t do that, then nobody will.”

Most encouragingly, since the publication of the alliance’s report, part of a new government fund called the Planning Performance Grant has been dedicated to design skills in local authorities. The alliance has more recently conducted studies on Reviewing Design Review in London and Councillors’ Attitudes to Residential Design, each designed to support local practice and furnish evidence to support a new national drive to raise the standard of urban design.

We have increasingly focused on gathering evidence as the most powerful means from which to make arguments about the importance of urban design.

Matthew Carmona

What makes a place great?

Car-dependent and extensive forms of single-use suburbanisation are qualities that should be avoided through formal design governance policies.

Credit: All images by Matthew Carmona

Adding value

The alliance’s latest contribution is a practical tool for decision-makers. Launched in April, Place Value and the Ladder of Place Quality sets out in simple terms what spatial qualities add value to places and what qualities don’t.

The report is backed by Carmona’s own research and by some 271 international empirical research studies gathered via an open-source website that Carmona runs called Place Value Wiki. Produced in collaboration with the Design Network, the Ladder is less a report and more of an advocacy tool for anyone interested in making the case for investing in great places, whether that’s a policy, project or investment decision.

At the bottom of the Ladder is ‘Avoid’. These are qualities that should be avoided at all costs when shaping the built environment due to strong negative associations with place value. Next is ‘Beware’: qualities we should be cautious about including owing to conflicting or insufficient evidence. ‘Aspire’ is a set of qualities that have a positive impact on place value, and ‘Require’ are the small number of qualities with a very strong positive impact on place value and should therefore be required in the built environment.

‘Place quality,” the Ladder says, “is a basic necessity of urban life with deep impacts over time and across all socio-economic strata. The qualities of successful places play an essential role in influencing positive health, social, economic and environmental outcomes. This is so important to our basic wellbeing that place quality should be the expectation of all.”

The Place Alliance has been on a journey, says Carmona: “We started as a loose collaborative network, but have increasingly focused on gathering evidence as the most powerful means from which to make arguments about the importance of urban design and the need to invest in skilled, informed and enlightened urban design governance”.

He argues there is much still do. Across 2019/20, the alliance is planning a national housing audit (to measure the quality of housing design across England), research on design policies in local and neighbourhood plans, and it aims to revisit its earlier urban design skills survey to see what has changed.

The School of Planning is one of the leading research-led planning schools in Europe, offering a creative and stimulating environment to study the form, planning, design and management of cities, and to shape their future. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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