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Back to the drawing board – Planners as urban designers

04 September 2015 Author: Harry Burchill

Planners recognise how crucial good urban design is to making places and that planning is not simply about land use, important though that obviously is. However, the extent to which they involve themselves in the design process was seen as contentious up to the late 1970s, according to the Urban Design Group. What is the situation today?

It is important to recognise the value that planners necessarily contribute to the design process. The educational opportunities offered by RTPI and others as part of their CPD help planners to develop their expert understanding of good design in the built environment - notwithstanding the skills they also learn “on the job,” whether through preparing or assessing developments, and the natural appreciation of design built up over their careers through exposure to a variety of types of development.

It's also worth reminding ourselves that many who have completed an RTPI accredited degree will have a foundation in urban design knowledge, and some will choose to specialise in this area. But even for those who don't specialise, this foundation is widened at the start of most planners’ careers, for example by assessing development proposals for householder developments, learning about the intricacies of buildings in the context of their surroundings, and predicting the impacts of them.

[T]his is where one of the most celebrated skills of a professional planner should lie: being able to engage fully in the design process in a creative and imaginative way, whilst still acting responsibly within a framework of process, legislation and democratic norms.

As their careers progress, planners typically face evermore complicated proposals, and such is the complex web of competing demands on them that keeping up to speed on all these different dimensions takes discipline. As discussions around development proposals shift around from principle to policy to legislation and viability, it can be tempting to overlook the basics. But no matter at what stage a development proposal is, we should never be complacent about design. After all, in years to come the design of a place will be users' most obvious measure of its success.

As planning departments come under increasing pressure to meet targets with fewer resources, it might be tempting to leave design to others or to consider it as a 'luxury'. But this is where, in my view, one of the most celebrated skills of a professional planner should lie: being able to engage fully in the design process in a creative and imaginative way, whilst still acting responsibly within a framework of process, legislation and democratic norms.

There are opportunities for planners to build continuously on these skills and use them in their day to day work - for example the two-day residential design course run by the Prince’s Foundation in partnership with RTPI Cymru that a handful of planners from Wales experienced in July.


Ben Bolger and Kim Hitch, architects with the Foundation, put the planners through their paces in an intensive programme of lectures and practical work to draw out delegates’ creativity and fire up their imagination. The course, entitled “Drawing Places,” would resonate well with anyone with postgraduate urban design training, although this course was less concerned about technical theories or Lynch-esque notions of "legibility", "nodal congregation" or "temporal dimensions of place", but focused more on the practicalities of observation by drawing and masterplanning, putting pen to paper and getting under the skin of what it is that makes a place look and feel like a place.

Lampeter, a picturesque university town comprising small terraced buildings of varying age and winding streets against a backdrop of undulating green hills and valleys, was an ideal setting to put creative skills to the test. Applying principles of drawing to critical thinking about places honed the delegates’ mind-set. Practicing shading techniques encouraged thinking about light and shadow. Thinking about the horizon, vanishing points and lines of perspective aided their interpretation of the “feel” of the town and where the eye is naturally drawn to (it's not just about "pretty buildings" of course).


After a morning of lectures in the classroom, the planners gathered their sketch pads and moved into the field, attracting attention from the friendly locals, police and even resident cattle, proving how easy it is to practice wide community engagement if you get out on site en-masse.

The varied responses to the workshop task demonstrated wide ranging, imaginative and intelligent thinking about local character, connectivity and built form, and were then applied to a theoretical extension to the town. The result was some fantastic conceptual plans of imaginative street and building layouts and enhanced public spaces relating to the existing settlement, providing inspiration for future work.

Throughout the two days, I was struck by just how engaged and enthused the delegates were and the imaginative and logical ideas they suggested in their own projects. I saw no reason not to have confidence in their ability to influence the design process.

It's probably safe to say that we are past the pre-1970s “professional sniping” about planners’ design abilities, but to those who may be suffering a crisis of confidence in their ability to give design advice, at the very least just remind yourself of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a “designer”:

“A person who plans the look or workings of something prior to it being made, by preparing drawings or plans.”

Whether you are discussing the principle of development, preparing a plan, engaging in pre-application discussions, assessing an application or varying a condition, this applies to you.

It was a pleasure to observe the work of colleagues in July and I would encourage members to seek out design training and take the opportunities to hone these skills when they arise. And in the meantime, whether you are preparing or assessing a scheme, take a minute to put down that local plan or piece of legislation, pick up a thick pen, and start drawing.


Harry Burchill

Harry Burchill

Planning Policy Officer, RTPI - @HarryBurchill