Context 167 - March 2021

C O N T E X T 1 6 7 : M A R C H 2 0 2 1 25 URBAN DESIGN LAURA ALVAREZ Understanding context Rethinking how to reform the planning system and get the construction industry working effectively depends on urban designers’ skills in understanding context. Britain’s built environment has seen better days. The quality of design has decayed. Sustainable development has been difficult to achieve. Local authorities have suffered a huge loss of skills and resources, but the pro-active planning lobby requires both. Placemaking, considered the best vehicle to achieve sustainability, is not always evidenced in planning applications; rather, a vast number of submissions lack contextual analysis, adequate depth of information and design integrity. Built-environment education seems polarised towards two distinctive strands: first, a tight understanding and adherence to rules; and, second, idealistic utopias difficult to deliver. Design schools are progressively diverting from contextual cognitive learning to producing striking imagery with futuristic tools, a promising glossy world of practice that attracts paying students but results in a loss of skills. The problems in the industry are systemic, poor outcomes being largely due to how all the parties involved interact. An effective way to move forward would involve a holistic under- standing of the context in which built environ- ment professions operate. That context involves big issues like climate change, health and wellbe- ing, housing, welfare, equality and inclusiv- ity, all of which transcend both geographical and scholarly boundaries, and which require system-thinking and collaborative, pragmatic approaches. Positive change requires a change of model. Imagine an enginewhose pieces can be removed and repaired individually. Current legislation operates like that, considering all specialities separately. Now imagine an ecosystem whose components are connected by the processes that associate them, rather than by their individual qualities. An organic, systemic approach that focuses on the relationship between the parts, their relative hierarchy and the way in which they affect each other would seem far more plausible as a model for the future of planning. Conversely, the parts of the industry are head- ing in different directions, failing to reconciliate their goals and motivations, or to deliver a com- mon agenda. Professional bodies are insular, having self-regulated codes of practice that emerged from old models like the engine that we imagined, which are no longer appropriate. In response to such an archaic ethos, higher educa- tion bodies offer technological advances and complex software solutions that promise a future of construction allegedly capable of eliminating errors by automatising design processes. The danger is that improved tools applied to the old model will continue to exacerbate problems, but do it faster than before. Unbalanced context analysis Sustainable development involves three spheres: economic, environmental and social. Economy is captured in monetary terms, so there is a meas- ure: gains can be assessed and investments can be A hand-drawn architectural illustration by Marc Turley of the Jointworks in the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham