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What do architects need to know about planners?

By Victoria Hills MRTPI, FICE, Chief Executive of the RTPI

Architects are specialists in designing buildings, planners are specialists in designing places.   As all good history students know, it was the rapid, unchecked industrialisation and building development of the 19th Century that led to the first Housing and Town Planning Act 1909.   Thomas Adams became the first Town Planning Inspector in 1910 and he set up the Town Planning Institute in 1914 with the following three objectives:

  • To advance the study of town planning, civic design and kindred subjects, and of the arts and sciences as applied to those subjects;
  • To promote the artistic and scientific development of towns and cities;
  • To secure the association, and to promote the general interests of those engaged or interested in the practice of town planning.

Architects will note that planning was set up from its outset as a profession to “promote the artistic” development of towns and cities and to advance the study of civic design and “kindred subjects”.  It is therefore alarming to read that one of our most high profile architects, Amin Taha has been saying that nowadays planners have little understanding of architectural history. Design has been at the heart of the planning profession since it was established as a profession in its own right more than a century ago.    

Planners are frequently unfairly typecast as “pen-pushers” or “development controllers” – or even as Taha put it - “architecturally illiterate”.  The truth is that planners are highly qualified professionals, often with specialisms (e.g. transport planning) who care deeply about the architectural or visual calibre of buildings. Indeed, 87% of our members told us recently that they would like to have more say on design, and we at the RTPI are calling for more clarity on design from the national planning policy framework in England.  

Planners train for around four years at degree level and it often takes a minimum of a further two to three years for planners to become fully qualified chartered members of the Royal Town Planning Institute, the planning profession’s charter mark of ethical, professional and educational standards (The RTPI is currently celebrating its 60th year of Royal Charter). Planning Schools at universities have a required learning outcome that graduating students are able to “evaluate the principles and processes of design for creating high quality places and enhancing the public realm for the benefit of all in society.” In addition, design is a core subject in our continuing professional development framework and we work with other organisations such as Design Council CABE to create guidance on design for our members.

Thankless balancing act

The place-making role of planners is a complex one.   We have to perform an often thankless balancing act of differing agendas and stakeholders to create places that work for communities now and in the future.  That balancing act includes, as a minimum, that national planning law and policies as well as local plans and policies are applied, that the frequently competing needs of government targets are balanced with environmental and climate change challenges, the health and wellbeing of the community,  the need for community engagement,  access to energy, infrastructure and amenities,  commercial developers’ need to realise a profit balanced with the requirement that developers contribute to community assets and the need to protect heritage buildings, landscapes and areas of scientific interest etc. Within this long list of needs, issues, considerations and stakeholders sits the requirement that planners also recognise good architectural design when they see it and can work with architects to ensure that buildings are of high quality and fit in with whatever the local planning policies decree. Planners do all this, every day, in the context that local authority planning departments have been subjected to a massive 42% cut in funding since 2010.     

Planners are not known for blowing their own trumpet, often missing out on getting the credit due for their role in successful places. However, as our Awards for Planning Excellence show,  skilled planners are integral in the creation of the places we all regard as successful today – for instance the newly regenerated Spanish City in Whitley Bay, Newcastle which took home our Silver Jubilee Cup earlier this year. Here planners showed a great deal of sensitivity, knowledge and passion for the architectural heritage of the area while they balanced all the needs and requirements of this challenging place and its community, to action its revival and reinstatement as the cultural heart of Whitley Bay. 

What do architects need to know about planners?   That planners are on the same side when it comes to making sure that buildings are right for the place and the people that use them and are of the highest design quality.   As professionals we must work together to create a built environment that works for all, not only spatially but visually too.  

This piece first ran in Building Design on 6 December 2019

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