A personal view by Jim Fox, Associate of Hyas.
The National Model Design Code (NMDC) is due to be finalised later in 2021 . Although coding is not new, this is a milestone for placemaking in this country and one that is generating a healthy debate about planning and zoning, innovation and intervention, and the value – in its broadest sense – of good design. There have been some fine recent articles summarising the history of coding and the NMDC itself. This article aims to complement these by focusing on targeted themes where myself and close collaborators can best add value – namely context and character, communities with ‘heart’, and the capacity of us all to influence the delivery and stewardship of high quality places.
Context and Character
Having just come out of a design review where the housebuilder and their designers’ thinking has been constrained by their ‘red line’, I was jubilant to see the NMDC start with context. Place context provides us with the clues and cues we need to underpin locally distinctive design. What makes this place special compared to other locations, what are the ‘character / area types’, and how do we communicate this and focus on meaningful cues for integrated placemaking? At St Cuthbert’s Garden Village Carlisle – where Hyas have provided garden communities support for nearly five years – we have collaboratively undertaken studies of characterful villages and neighbourhoods in and around the area, and promoted specifics around density, form, and materials.
By definition urban design can be – well – quite urban! Many of our clients are grappling with large scale residential driven change in sensitive greenfield locations. Many of these places draw their character – and placemaking solutions – from their landscape setting. Although the Code only includes two (out of 12) area types of this nature – ‘rural’ and ‘village’ – this provides us with the hooks we need to further explore landscape and rural character, and in many cases take a landscape led approach to design. The mantra for St Cuthbert’s Carlisle is, ‘Start with Park’. Others across the professions continue to explore this often neglected theme, perhaps inspired by Jan Gehl when he said,
‘First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.’ Jan Gehl
As so many of us are discovering, this is all the more pertinent in a time of pandemic.
Communities with ‘Heart’
Whether it be estate regeneration, garden communities or other large scale residential driven opportunities, evolving and emerging places need some form of centre – a community ‘heart’. The
NMDC defines them as ‘local centres and high streets’ supported by specific guidance on active frontages and school design.
The UK’s housebuilder and development models often struggle to design and deliver integrated neighbourhood centres. The 15 minute city and 20 minute neighbourhood concepts, and the vintage work of the Urban Task Force on mixed use neighbourhoods provide useful context, further informed by the realities of a critical mass of people and trade to support long term success. In lower value locations housing associations and community groups have stepped up to deliver and manage genuinely integrated mixed use neighbourhood centres. This includes the remodelled Blacon Centre Chester – initiated by a local trust and driven by public / third sector partnership. At the 3,000 home Ashton Green Leicester, a new village centre is emerging with outline designs inspired by local village forms, a full range of uses mixed vertically – as well as horizontally – and a prominent location at the junction of a key route and the Bradgate Ride active travel corridor.
Capacity to Deliver
As with most design challenges, we need to be able to deliver on our ambition and constructively influence what comes out of the ground. From a planning perspective this means getting policy ducks in a row to robustly carry weight with planning decisions – sequentially and proportionately hooking back into Local Plans. It is also critical to engage early – as promoted by the NMDC – and potentially co-produce codes with developer and land promoter partners and others responsible for delivery, and importantly, place stewardship. This was the approach taken at Leicester Waterside by the City Council and their developer partner in producing a design code and green infrastructure strategy – development now on site.
Design codes are one of a number of tools in our box. Many local authorities have been comprehensively promoting good design for some time. Guides, codes and policies are at their most effective when part of a broader collaborative design initiative where the full tool box offers design training and champions, design review and assessments such as Building for Healthy Life, and a ‘design conversation’ across the professions and communities. Nottingham City Council have been promoting the Design Quality Framework approach for many years – the city is benefitting impressively from the value that a long term commitment to good design helps to generate.
87% wanted greater powers to reject poor design and lacked the capacity and resources to do so.
There is clearly a drive within the profession for the promotion of high quality design, albeit impacted by the very real issue of capacity, across all sectors. In South Staffordshire, Hyas have embarked on design training for Members in the context of housing pressures and an emerging Local Plan – initial sessions on-line of course! This will prepare the ground for even more design aware decision making in the years to come. We are also supporting local authorities in securing and getting the best out of resources for design initiatives to support garden communities.
From National to Local, From Debate to Action
The National Design Guide and Code are now beginning to be interpreted at the local level. The cycle of analysis, pilots and action turns. Ongoing questions for us all to explore include:
- How do codes best fit in the design and planning tool box?
- At a time of growth and change how can we help shape places that sit in context, are locally distinctive and provide a heart for communities?
- How can we all creatively and collaboratively secure and share the resources needed to promote, deliver and maintain good design?