Barcelona Field Studies Centre

Quality and Impact of Urban Design

Alison Benjamin on Britain's first attempt to assess the quality and impact of urban design

Wednesday February 7, 2001
The Guardian

Is it possible to quantify the benefits of good building design? A new official report makes a first stab at doing just that, assessing the economic, social and environmental value of recent development schemes in three big cities.

The report, released yesterday, is part of a government drive to improve the quality of urban design. It heaps praise on what it concludes is good and spares few feelings in damning what it sees as bad.

Office block developments accessible only by car, making no attempt to fit in with the surrounding environment or adding anything to the local community, are singled out as examples of poor design. Standard Court, in Nottingham, is branded "a disconnected place that does not welcome people in and offers them little once they are there".

By contrast, developments that are inviting, make an effort to blend with surroundings and offer a range of uses score highly on the report's system. Barbirolli Square, in Manchester, is described as "a gently animated public space with its own distinct character and sense of place and with a good quality of enclosure".

The report, The Value of Urban Design, was drawn up by researchers on behalf of the commission for architecture and the built environment (Cabe), the new government agency set up to boost building design, and the Department of the Environment. The study was launched at a conference, in London, held to build on Cabe's Better Public Buildings report, launched last October by Tony Blair.

The conference highlighted the role of central and local government in delivering good urban design beyond the regulatory planning process. Andrew Smith, chief secretary to the Treasury, told delegates that quality design did not necessarily cost more to deliver, but offered strong competitive advantages.

The new report suggests that good rental returns and enhanced capital values go hand-in-hand with well-designed schemes. It calls on investors and developers to take on board the commercial evidence and on tenants to recognise the increased prestige that high quality, integrated architecture commands with clients - not to say the favourable impact it has on staff loyalty and health. Public authorities also benefit, it says, when run-down areas and amenities are returned to public use and urban centres are revitalised.

Researchers, from the Bartlett school of planning at University College London, compared pairs of predominantly commercial developments built at roughly the same time and chosen for their similarity in all respects except urban design. These were: Standard Court and Castle Wharf in Nottingham; Barbirolli Square and Exchange Quay in Greater Manchester; Brindleyplace in Birmingham and the Waterfront business park in nearby Dudley. Each development was gauged against a range of quantitative and qualitative measures such as rental returns, energy consumption, traffic generation and assessed vibrancy.

Exchange Quay, a Dallas-style development on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal in Salford, is described as "a bland, faceless development with bland, faceless buildings and spaces" which makes little attempt to connect itself to its hinterland. "Very heavy security guard presence confirms this is predominately a private, rather than public, place," says the report.

Whereas Exchange Quay turns it back on its waterfront, Nottingham's Castle Wharf and Birmingham's Brindley Place both scored highly for openly embracing their canal settings, locating pubs and restaurants to maximum effect.

However, according to Esterre Property Management, which manages Exchange Quay, the very features on which it is marked down are its selling points. Darren Tyson, estates supervisor, says: "There is only one fence. It is 7ft [2.1m] high, but there aren't any spikes. There is an estate right next door. I'm not saying everyone on it is rough, but you only have to speak to the police to know we have a need for security and our tenants [mainly insurance companies] demand it. They are paying for security, maintenance and landscaping."

The Manchester branch of Masons law firm moved out of Exchange Quay just over three years ago - to Barbirolli Square. Comprising two office blocks on one side of the square, with the Bridgewater concert hall on the other, the development is praised by the report. "The clever use of levels allows the central space to step down to a re-established canal basin on to which a new cafe opens up," it says.

Edward Davies, a partner at Masons, cites expansion as the reason for the move to Barbirolli and says most clients would have preferred the firm to stay put. "Exchange Quay was conveniently located just off the motorway, had surface parking and good security, and the Copthorne hotel was across the road for lunch. They thought it was wonderful."

While Exchange Quay offers investors returns of just 1% to 3%, Barbirolli commands the highest rents in Manchester and the office project is now valued at 60m, compared to its 27.5m cost. Such financial facts back up Cabe's argument that better design adds economic value. "Good urban design definitely pays back," says Jon Rouse, Cabe's chief executive.

Many have yet to be convinced. John Gilder, property director of the Mill Group, which developed part of Nottingham's Standard Court, insists he is content with his scheme's performance, despite the report's critical appraisal. Particularly scathing comment is passed by the researchers on the development's hardly used public arena. Gilder admits that the only people making use of the arena are skateboarders - and they are doing so illegally - and he concedes that Standard Court lacks the warmth, closeness and pleasant environment that make nearby Castle Wharf a "destination location".

Such shortcomings are said to illustrate the crucial role that local authority planning departments have to play in urban design and delivery of economic, social and environmental benefits. Departments can and should be proactive, says the report, and should positively set the design agenda through clear development plan policies, making funding conditional on good design and using the leverage offered by ownership of brownfield sites.

Significantly, two of the report's three lower-scoring developments had minimal local authority input, having come under the remit of either development corporations or enterprise zones. Cabe intends to work to ensure that the private/public urban regeneration companies proposed in the urban white paper learn from such mistakes.