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Best planning research puts focus on design

09 October 2018 Author: Zoe Abel

This year, some of the best research projects in the RTPI Research Excellence Awards focus their attention on the design and quality of places and their relationship with well-being and health outcomes.

This pool of new evidence is welcome particularly in the light of the revised National Planning Policy Framework published earlier this year, which renews its focus on the importance of design amid ambitious government housing targets. It specifies that clarity and testing of design quality are essential to achieving sustainable development, as well as promoting effective design through community involvement and the use of local styles.

So, what do these studies tell us?

Deregulating planning leads to lower quality homes

One study conducted by Ben Clifford, Jessica Ferm, Nicola Livingstone, Patricia Canelas at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London explores the quality and design of residential dwellings converted from offices without the need for planning permission, following the deregulation of the planning system in England in 2013.

Though developers and agents generally thought this had delivered much more housing and speeded up implementation, evidence shows a reduction in quality. The study finds that just 30% of converted ‘studio flats’ meet national space standards. It also finds evidence that office conversions in the middle of industrial estates and buildings have undergone barely any changes to turn them into decent residential dwellings. The authors conclude that this policy has been a fiscal giveaway from the state to the private real estate sector, leaving behind a splurge of low quality housing that is not seen in areas that require planning permission like Glasgow or Rotterdam.

A benchmark for green infrastructure is necessary

A project team comprising members from Gloucester Wildlife Trust, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments and University of the West of England worked closely with stakeholders from across the South West to understand how green infrastructure fits into the wider development process.

They conclude that uncertainty remains about what constitutes high quality green infrastructure. In turn, this means delivery is inconsistent, resulting in a reduction of opportunities to deliver multiple functions and benefits at the neighbourhood and settlement scale.

They then use the findings to set up the UK’s first green infrastructure benchmark, ‘Building with Nature’. The benchmark defines and sets the standard for high quality green infrastructure design and aims to address the gap between policy aspirations and practicable deliverability.

The project, which won the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, highlights the need for consistency and minimum standards of green spaces in driving forward the government’s commitment to quality for new development and sustainable development.

Planning healthy communities needs a bottom up approach

Design of the built environment has a large impact on health outcomes such as social isolation and engagement, physical activity and healthy eating. Helen Pineo from UCL’s Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering was funded by the Building Research Establishment to explore these issues in order to help planners in Southwark achieve healthier outcomes.

They find that building trust with local communities is crucial to learn about their perceptions around health issues, and highlight different cases in which changes in built environment design can improve health of local residents. For example, Bristol City Council altered its street layout and design by introducing a 20mph speed limit. This led to an increase in commuting by foot by 40% and to a 94% increase in cycle commuting between 2001 and 2011.

Grassroots participation in planning to improve local communities is also highlighted by the winner of the Student Award. Jason Slade at the University of Sheffield examines the Big Local project in Westfield, Sheffield, which throws light on the role of storytelling in the context of people trying to create positive change in their community and how non-professionals can engage meaningfully in planning activity. 

This article was first published in October 2018 issue of The Planner magazine.

Zoe Abel

Zoe Abel

Zoe Abel is Research Assistant at the RTPI.