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Government failing on urban design

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NEWS: Shadow cabinet policy advisor on architecture, planning and urban design Sherin Aminossehe delivered a paper in Shanghai last week on how the government is 'ignoring the point' on the importance of urban design in regeneration policies. Here she det

On entering the conference venue at Tongji University in Shanghai last week, I was greeted with a bright red banner welcoming 'the elite of the planning world' to the city. This surprised as well as pleased me, especially when considering the attitude of our own society to built environment professionals, where we are considered to be little better than builders.

This perhaps shows why governments also consider the topic of urban design to be little more than a passing sound bite, which was demonstrated when the government summarily ignored the recommendations of the Towards an Urban Renaissance report in its White Paper.

However, I believe that the built environment professions are also to blame. Some time ago we were told that a new way of evaluating architecture, the 'delight rating', would form a key part of a new government-backed project to rate how well buildings are designed. The final results of the project were not available at the time, but it seems that researchers will focus on, among other things, the 'effect on the mind and the senses'.Under these plans, clients, architects and users will be asked a series of questions that will include its suitability for a good party!

The problem is complex, and, during the past few decades, there have been precious few comprehensive studies on the subject. Therefore the current government approach by decisionmakers has become rather simplistic, superficial and cosmetic.

This is exacerbated by the issue of language used within urban design. Professionals like to hide behind the specialist words of their trade.

Those in the construction industries and politics are certainly no different. Often, the adoption of such phrases or words by an individual serves as a type of Masonic initiation ritual into a closed world. Further travels into such groups lead into an increased codification of the language used.

This process continues to such an extent that a barrier is created, and those without the knowledge of the string of passwords required are kept out of the elite gathering. The Enigma code would sometimes be easier to break.

Also, occasionally, there is slippage. Passwords leak outside the closeted worlds and into the public realm, where their meanings are changed, distorted or misunderstood, evolving into different perceptions of the initial concept.

Often, different groups, or even at a more basic level, politicians in the same party, will give conflicting definitions to the same concept. This raises doubts as to the reliability and authenticity of the original idea which thus becomes dismissed as yet another soundbite.

If we are to have a real urban renaissance, as the politicians would have us believe, instead of a mere reawakening, surely it would be better that those closely involved in the policy and decision-making process should have an understanding of what they are attempting to preach, rather than resorting to empty wordplay, which will achieve little? Those close to the decisionmaking process also need to rethink the idea that urban design can be practiced by anyone or that any agency is able to initiate or deal with urban programmes or projects. By these means many of the important decisions are not taken by the professionals, but by people who may not be involved in urban design at all.

Therefore, if urban design is to become an important issue within the public policy agenda, it can be suggested that the profession needs to go through the following stages:

The clarification of the words used in urban design policies by a panel of experts, which are then disseminated through a public inquiry within the professions. Only by fully understanding the language used can meaningful solutions to problems be formulated.

Creating greater awareness in the general public through community participation on the advantages of living in an improved environment.

Ensuring that urban design is valued by policy makers for its social, environmental and economic benefits.

Influencing the public agenda regarding the importance of urban design issues within the renewal of city centres, and their relationship to economic and social aspects.

Briefing politicians regarding the importance of urban design issues within the context of a long-term programme.

The expansion of the role of the architect/ urban designer through the redefinition of 'design', by emphasising design not only as a tool for creation of an aesthetic, but also to produce a viable economic value.

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