The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment hosted a conference last week in Perth about new approaches to street design which are now policy in Scotland, thanks to the Scottish Government’s adoption of Designing Streets: a Policy Statement for Scotland.
At the core of the new approach is greater emphasis on creating walkable neighbourhoods, rather than the focus on vehicle capacity and speed that has characterised new road layouts in recent decades. The aim is to create places which are better to live and work as well as more sustainable. You can read more about the approach in this blog article that I wrote when the consultation draft was published in early 2009.
The conference was attended by designers, engineers and planners from the public and private sectors. Jim Mackinnon, the Scottish Government’s Chief Planner, was there too.
In various discussions during the day, it became clear that one of the critical things needed if this new approach is to take root – which I think is critical if we are to build better places – is the sheer amount of training and awareness-raising that is needed across planners, road engineers, architects and developers.
For many, this new approach will be a challenge. Planners and engineers have simply not been trained to design and assess road layouts in this way: the conventional norm is to rely on the design standards like those in the Design Manual Roads and Bridges (DMRB) and the former Strathclyde Regional Council’s Roads Development Guide, last published in 1996. A large number of people will have to completely re-think the way that they think about roads design.
This won’t just happen. It’s going to take concerted effort by the government, the professions, educators and employers. The Prince’s Foundation conference last week was a welcome initiative. Jim Mackinnon announced at the conference that the government would be organising further seminars over the next few months.
My concern is that as public sector cuts deepen, there will not be the appetite to put in place a full strategy for training and educating about better street design… even though it is an essential part of placemaking, which in turn is referred to as an important component of sustainable economic development in the First Annual Report of the Scottish Council of Economic Advisers in December 2008.
The government will point to the fact that Designing Streets is policy, so has more teeth than guidance – so putting the onus on planning authorities and reporters to place more weight on it in decision-making. But that still relies on designers and engineers understanding how to design properly in this new paradigm.
Fundamentally, the new design paradigm has to be embraced not only by regulators in the public sector, but by developers. These are the people who can really make a difference. Only if a broad spectrum of developers adopt the Designing Streets approach will we see a change in the quality of proposals that are put forward to planning and roads authorities for approval. However motivated their architects, designers and engineers are, if the developers themselves are not sold on the approach, we will not get better places.
A small number of developers have embraced the new approach. But as a planner visiting from England said to me last week, you just need to look out of the train window between Glasgow and Edinburgh – or most other parts of the country – to see that our new developments have a long way to go before they reflect the aspirations of Designing Streets.
As the government’s promised programme of seminars on Designing Streets is rolled out, developers need to be targeted too. And judging from the small number that were at the Prince’s Foundation conference last week, that’s going to need some targeted effort.