Creating Places for All: Bridging the knowledge and skills gap

“Cities are expected to be home to an increasing percentage of the global population and so our cities should be designed to include a diverse cross section of society, safely and comfortably. Good design can and does impact human behaviour for the better and fosters sociability, and opportunities for interaction and positive connections.”

As global citizens we need to be mindful that ‘there is no planet B’ a quote from President Francois Macron in his April 25th, 2018 address to Congress. Even if there were, we still need to be good stewards of the one planet we all live on. In practical terms this means practicing sustainable development so that the resources needed by tomorrows’ generations are not squandered by todays’.

Being global citizens also means creating places for all. If we as placemakers and placeshapers, focus on the most vulnerable in society: children, the elderly, the disabled or differently abled, the injured, women, ethnic minorities, anyone with special needs who requires due care and consideration, then we should be designing places that enable everyone to participate fully in the public life of our cities.

Cities are expected to be home to an increasing percentage of the global population and so our cities should be designed to include a diverse cross section of society, safely and comfortably. Good design can and does impact human behaviour for the better and foster sociability, and opportunities for interaction and positive connections. A focus on the most vulnerable does not exclude anyone else, rather it ensures that public places work well for everyone.

All too often what is being designed does not work well for everyone. So, we are left without that which we had hoped to accomplish, places that are vital, well-loved and well used by people of all walks of life, of a mix of ages, genders, religions, socio-economic classes and ethnicities. A truly inclusive, universal place.

Creating Places for All
Creating Places for All

Fortunately, we have good examples of places that work with the characteristics noted but there seems to be a knowledge gap as to how to achieve successful places. The principles of good urban design and universal design do not seem to be as widely known, taught or practiced as they ought to be. So how do we bridge the knowledge and skill gap, so we get more human scale buildings with active frontages, interesting plinths and places where both men and women feel safe, children run and play, the elderly can sit and socialise, teenagers can chat with friends, and singles can read in comfort? Essentially inclusive, universal places where everyone can be their best self, feel comfortable and be at peace with their neighbour.

From experience the education and training of those most commonly involved in placemaking in the UK namely architects, engineers and planners is divorced from the training of urban designers because of the specialisation of these professions. Architects focus on the individual building, interiors or the landscape, engineers focus on structures and planners focus on policy and strategy.

Urban Designers focus on the design of neighbourhoods, towns, cities and districts. Urban Designers consider: the spatial design of groups of buildings inclusive of scale and built form, enclosure, active frontage, the mix of uses, the design of streets, public spaces, green and open space, the environment, human and nature interactions, walkability, personalisation, character, variety, legibility, connectivity and other considerations with a view to making urban areas functional, sustainable, attractive, pleasant and well-loved.

We need everyone to be aware of the impact of their design decisions and work together to come up with the best possible solutions to solve place specific challenges.

Some university courses in the UK combine one or other of the specialisations like architecture and urban design or planning and urban design but not all universities provide this invaluable opportunity to add urban design as that vital additional layer. Some practitioners are learning from the mistakes of personal experience and seemingly reinventing the wheel to solve problems like safety and equality in public places with solutions and practices that sound like ‘Responsive Environment’ based urban design principles and universal design principles. These solutions have been renamed and rebranded and are essentially the same urban design principles that if used correctly result in safe places that work for all. Sharing knowledge of these urban design principles can reduce those mistakes and save time, money and increase vitality.

In Sweden, architects, landscape architects and planners share two years in common before separating to continue in their specialisation. This affords the opportunity to teach urban design principles to those professions, in those two common foundation years. If successful a similar model could be trialled in some UK universities.

For those practitioners past university, we can aim to share; best practice principles, methodology and the many success stories with fellow practitioners through events, conferences, workshops, lectures, meet-ups, newsletters and publications. It is by being open and communicating effectively that we can improve collectively the global practice of placemaking. We can each start small and mentor whenever possible. If each one teaches one, our sphere of influence grows and over time best practice improves and the number of successful, vital, well-loved places increases globally.

There are proven significant social and economic dividends to getting place design right. Developers are investing in placemaking because any improvement to their area increases the value of their built assets and adds a premium to the location. The prosperity linked to vitality can be fostered by:

1. Getting the mix of uses right and including residential at various price points.

2. Offering retail and commercial space at a spectrum of rents to encourage diversity in the offerings. This makes for a more interesting pedestrian experience and caters to a wide cross section of society so there are shops and businesses catering to shoppers of all means.

3. Providing well-managed, attractive, accessible, universal, inclusive public space with regular programming and events.

All those involved in place making should be striving for great places for all. Destinations that people from all walks of life are proud of, pleased to visit, share and show off to visiting family and friends, should be the goal.

For more information or to collaborate on your next great place, please do get in touch. We would be happy to help.

Article by Jacqueline Bleicher MA.UD, ARB, RIBA, Urban Design Director, Global Urban Design.