Over the past eight years, in my former role as an urban designer in the Greater London Authority’s planning team, I had the unique opportunity to advise on a range of schemes of all manner of shapes and sizes including a certain garden bridge, office blocks and other structures in the City, high rise residential schemes in the Old Kent Road and mega-towers in Croydon and North Acton.  This myriad of projects and visions has offered a valuable insight into what is needed to help steer schemes through the planning process and ultimately create successful buildings and places.

What is striking is the breadth and depth of talent and commitment directed towards most schemes I’ve been involved with and most heartening in my mind, the importance placed on the role of good design and a recognition for the value it brings to driving the delivery of new development in social, environmental and economic terms.  

Recent national planning reforms and the publication of the London Plan 2021 have now placed even greater weight and focus on the role of design in the decision-making process, whether it be through the promotion of the National Model Design Code, the controversial ‘fast-track to beauty’, or the Mayor’s Good Growth by Design initiative.  While there remains some uncertainty as to how some of these models and ideas will manifest into tangible policies and outcomes, it does serve to raise the profile of design as being fundamental to the planning process and this can only be a good thing for the future of the places we live, work and play in.

The Government’s belief that the pursuit of beauty in the urban environment will help to grease the wheels of the planning decisions process and speed up delivery on the ground has clearly created much debate and even ridicule in some circles. 

Good design doesn’t and shouldn’t focus on beauty alone which, after all, is often only a brick course or rainscreen deep, but also on a scheme’s functionality and the ways in which people engage and inhabit it.  This is often epitomised by the ‘everyday’ workings of a building that are easy to take for granted such as the experience of a resident’s journey from the public street to the private realm of their own front door.  Often, the most successful buildings are not the most beautiful but the ones that connect seamlessly with their environment and become an integral and accepted part of a place.   

In achieving genuinely functional and user-focused places, meaningful engagement with local communities and stakeholders through co-design from the inception of a project through to delivery, will become more important particularly for large, complex sites which often struggle most. Co-design in this context means understanding how groups and communities value the places they inhabit and responding to their needs in new development. In my experience, this approach has been exemplified in estate regeneration projects where residents of all ages have an invested interest in the environment in which they live as a direct result of having had active, first-hand engagement with the development process.  This has helped create highly respected and award-winning developments that are likely to stand the test of time and become part of the city’s furniture. 

I’m pleased to say that Montagu Evans recognises the value of collaboration to steer schemes successfully through the planning process and achieve the best outcomes for our clients. In our Historic Environment and Townscape team we have strong and varied inhouse expertise ranging from qualified architects and architectural historians to urban designers. That knowledge, together with our considerable experience of complex projects across England, allows us to act as ‘critical friends’ to design teams, ultimately leading to high quality and sustainable new developments.

There are of course many challenges and external forces at play outside of the planning and design process, most notably economic drivers in the London market. Nonetheless, if the inception and evolution of a scheme is guided by good design principles that are forged through collaborative and thoughtful means, with shared goals of creating functional, sustainable, successful and perhaps even beautiful places, then that can only be for the betterment of our cities.