16. Design codes, peddling myths or reality

New York’s Forum For Urban Design and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy recently hosted a debate to explore British and American writing traditions on architecture, urbanism and land policy.  I was invited to discuss the role of the professional built environment media in reporting urban design in the UK.

My argument was that the built environment media (like the national media) frequently sees issues in black and white terms – whatever the subject – and that the treatment of design issues offers a classic case-in-point.  Spurred on by our professional traditions and perceived territories, confrontation is often the order of the day, and evidence and debate are marginalised.  One casualty has long been the quality of the built environment in an area that still falls between the gaps, and where responsibility remains contested.  The media, alongside our professions and system of professional education, plays a key role in perpetuating this.

My recent experience of researching the use and potential of design codes for DCLG brought this home to me with a vengeance.  In 2004 the British Government funded seven large scale pilot projects in order to determine whether design codes could play a role in delivering greater speed, certainty and quality in volume housing.  The tool was widely seen as a potential answer to the very poor quality of housing design across England, in a sector in which architects have been largely cut out since the 1970s.

In this respect, codes were seen by Government as part of the answer to delivering the massive housing expansion in the South East, building on a British tradition of coding that arguably goes back to 1667, and on more recent European typomorphology influences, and the experiences of the New Urbanism movement in the US.  In this context, design codes were viewed as detailed design guidance for large sites where the design elements of a development are specified, but not how these fit together to create the whole.  Thus a limited number of components may generate a multitude of final outcomes, although usually they relate to, and effectively become the delivery mechanism for, a masterplanned vision.

So what was the reaction?  In the architectural press, true to form, it was immediate and negative, not helped by the visit of the former Deputy Prime Minister – John Prescott – to Seaside in Florida, and the nightmarish vision this generated in commentators minds of waves of ‘Truman show’-like dystopia spreading across England.  ‘The danger of Two-jags [Prescott’s press pseudonym] Truman show’ screamed one headline.

Alongside these predictable reactions, arguments appeared claiming that design codes would:

  • Suffocate the creativity of designers
  • Lead to excessively bureaucratic decision-making
  • Deliver only traditional design solutions
  • Result in a cost-cutting culture, cutting out the designers
  • Result in very restrictive and prescriptive planning
  • Promote formulaic design solutions.

Minds, it seems, had already been made up, based on in-built presumptions and professional mind-sets, without waiting for the evidence to confirm these, one way or another.  Over the course of the two years of research that followed tracking the seven pilots and twelve other case studies in considerable depth, the same arguments were regularly made.

Two years on, what did the research show.  It showed that design codes are not without their problems – logistical, resource, skills-based and time – but despite this, in general they offer:

  • A focus for more creative input into place-making
  • Clarity in the regulatory process
  • An entirely style neutral form of design guidance, in that any style, or none, can be coded for
  • A means to ensure that considerable up-front investment in design is made to prepare the design codes (typically by architects)
  • Different degrees of prescription, but always a more certain development process
  • A means to question and circumvent standards-based approaches to highways and architectural design.

The reality, therefore, was rather different from many assumptions; a reality seen in many of the most interesting housing development in recent years – Hulme, Greenwich Millennium Village, Newhall, Upton.  These developments may not be to everyone’s taste, but they represent a major step-forward from the volume built developments that would have been the alternative and that have been so roundly dammed in recent housing audits undertaken for CABE.

Greenwich Millennium Village

But, despite the evidence, many minds remain set, including some big-names with their headline generating potential.  Will Alsop, for example, declared that ‘Design codes stifle our imagination’, whilst Richard Rogers claimed that ‘Codes are for pen-pushers and penny-pinchers who have not a clue about design and want to find their way through the planning system’.

A minority of more considered voices were also heard.  In particular, despite an earlier RIBA practice note that urged caution on design codes and warned that ‘Design codes risk pattern-book housing’, on launching the research, the RIBA president concluded that ‘In the right circumstances and with the right expertise, they can speed up the planning process and deliver excellent results’.

Despite this, it seems that our historically confrontational mindsets are difficult to change, and evidence to prove or disprove a position can make very little difference to how it is reported in the press.  Other built environment topics that regularly receive a similar treatment include: tall buildings policy, conservation practice, design review, development control, community engagement, greenbelts, density policy, the 2012 Olympics, and, most significantly, the global warming debate.

Many of these go far beyond design, but nevertheless tend to encourage deliberately polarised discussions in the press.  In the case of design codes, the danger is that architects will exclude themselves from housebuildng for a further generation if they are unwilling to consider their role as part of a multi-disciplinary team.  On other issues, the other professions can be equally set in their ways.  Questions to consider include:

  • Are the professions a barrier to intelligent debate?
  • What role does the media play in maintaining the divide?
  • Can research evidence help to fill the gap?
  • Does built environment education need re-thinking to encourage cooperation and consensus from the start?
  • Or are we simply different beasts, and always will be?

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


July 2007