Context 158 - March 2019

48 C O N T E X T 1 5 8 : M A R C H 2 0 1 9 ROGER EVANS Bring on the conservation team Where can the design skills be found to meet the desperate need to feed an understanding of urbanism into the development plan process? The answer may be in the conservation team. In 1994, when design was just re-emerging on to the planning agenda, the government of the day launched its Quality in Town and Country initiative.Towns and cities were invited to bid for funding to drive design-led planning studies and 21 locations were chosen for these ‘exemplar’ projects. One of these was Worcester, where the city council was looking to produce guidance for a large area in decline between the city centre and the River Severn. As a youngish and enthusiastic urban designer, I was delighted to be commissioned to work with the city council on the project. A defining encounter As a high-profile project, there was much interest from local civic groups and others. An extensive round of consultation was arranged. One of the bodies to be consultedwas the local archaeological team. It was a defining encounter. I had expected to mark up a constraints map with remnants to preserve and sites to avoid, but what I found was a history extending back to medieval times which did not simply offer curiosities to conserve but urban forms that were as relevant for lives today as those that were lived six centuries back. Street patterns that responded to the under- lying topography, while providing what we might now call ‘permeable’ layouts; a public realm that had scales conducive to something between home zones and a 20mph zone; and a grain of plot subdivisions that offered a rhythm of frontages that catered for local traders: mixed-use, multi-functional, traffic-calmed, sustainable and wonderful – with the addition of modern sewerage. It is the streets and public places that naturally endure the longest of a city’s components, while buildings of significance need protection if they are to survive beyond their amortisation period. Many historic market towns and city quarters were planned, but others evolved as human usage shaped human habitats. These are now some of the most valued urban environments, protected as conservation areas or even world heritage sites. People flock to them, as holiday destinations, valued city quarters or exclusive places to live. If we know what such places look like, why are new developments so overwhelmingly banal? Every drab commuter estate built over the last 20 years has received a planning consent based on a near 100-page design and access statement and an environmental assessment. Over the next decade the government plans to build three mil- lion new homes.With supporting infrastructure, the footprint will be around 90 square miles, roughly the size of Surrey. Do we need to dumb down when planning for housing? Not at all: virtually every historic city began as housing. Houses served many functions before the advent of offices and specialised places of work. Streets were our common ground in both a geographic and spiritual sense. In town and city centres they served as market places and exchanges. The local plan process There is a perception that urban design is an activity that takes place once the local plan has identified development sites. But by that time half the urban design decisions have inadvert- ently already been taken. The local plan process relies heavily on a ‘call for sites’, whereby local authorities invite land owners to propose sites for development by submitting an Ordnance Survey map with Possible urban design input to a local plan