Urban Designer: myth or reality?

Vem ritar stadens former? Och vilket är denne persons kunskapsfält? En benämning som har dykt upp i Sverige på sistone och som till viss del förefaller som ett nytt skrå i planerarssfären är den urbana designern. Men vad innehåller begreppet och hur har det vuxit fram? För att nysta i detta har PLAN bett David Chapman, tidigare verksam såväl praktiskt som akademiskt i London, berätta om sin bild av the Urban designer i England och hur den rollen förhåller sig till svenska förutsättningar.

David Chapman är universitetsadjunkt vid Luleå Tekniska Universitet

Urban Design Skills Ltd Christmas card (Rob Cowan, 2008).

Urban Design Skills Ltd Christmas card (Rob Cowan, 2008).

A party question, what do you do?

I’m an architect, planner, engineer are good answers. But urban designer, blank or puzzled faces arise.

What’s an urban designer?

By the time you explain, you wish you hadn’t started.

I say teacher (sometimes). It’s simple and avoids awkward conversations.

So what is urban design and what is it in Sweden. The UK debate is nearly 40 year’s old and still, no real answer. This article takes at brief look at the key people, initiatives, organization, and groups behind this debate and considers what an urban designer is.

The debate

Simple. An architect designs buildings, an urban designer shapes the setting of a place and that should be the end of this article.

But who is behind the setting and creation of places; political leaders, physical planners, development managers, highway engineers, developers, investors, community groups, etc.?

If so, is everyone who plays a part in place making an urban designer or actually are none and, instead we all simply play a role in the process of place creation

The beginning - The Urban Design Group (UDG)

I was probably at school in 1978 when Francis Tibbalds convened a meeting at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) under the banner ‘Architects in Planning’. The focus was the creation of the urban scene and the issue that various professional institutions no longer recognized each other’s legitimate role in its creation.

Renamed the Urban Design Group (UDG) in 1979, the group includes members from the full range of people that help shape built environments and focuses on placing urban design on the national agenda. They seek to:

  • Put design at the heart of the planning system
  • Integrate planning & transport
  • Develop urban design skills
  • Promote sustainable development
  • Champion urban design

The UDG campaigns to deliver their agenda through lectures, workshops, study tours and a magazine.

Arrival of the royal

The Prince of Wales (UK) was an early actor in the debate. In 1984, his RIBA speech included hard hitting phrases including ‘monstrous carbuncle’ and ‘giant glass stump’.

In 1988, he made his urban design views public in a TV documentary, A Vision of Britain. To put it kindly, his views on the industry were not good.

In 1989, the Prince followed up with a book and ten principles:

  • The Place – don’t rape the landscape.
  • Hierarchy – if a building can’t express itself, how   can we understand it?
  • Scale – less might be more; too much is not enough.
  • Harmony – sing with the choir and not against it.
  • Enclosure – give us somewhere safe for the children to play and let the wind play somewhere else.
  • Materials – let where it is be what it’s made of.
  • Decoration – a bare outline won’t do; give us the details.
  • Art – Michelangelo accepted very few commissions for a free-standing abstract sculpture in the forecourt.
  • Signs and lights – don’t make rude signs in public places.
  • Community – let the people who will have to live with what you build help guide your hand.

Today, the Prince’s views are promoted and disseminated by the Prince’s Foundation.

First steps

1997 saw an attempt to unite the professions on urban design with the creation of Urban Design Alliance (UDAL). This group existed as an umbrella organisation of professional and campaigning groups including the Civic Trust, Institution of Civil Engineers, Institution of Highways and Transportation, Landscape Institute, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, Royal Town Planning Institute and UDG. UDAL was committed to improving the quality of life through urban design, particularly through collaboration between institutes.

Whilst disbanded in 2011, the alliance supported a similar agenda to the UDG and delivered a number of interesting projects including Placecheck, a simple urban analysis tool for communities to assess qualities of their place.

Today similar organisations exist elsewhere and notably the Urban Design Alliance of Queensland has been in place for over a decade with an urban design approach that brings together institutions and others in an alliance.

Government steps in

In 1999, CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) was established by government. Its remit was focused on creating better spaces, buildings and places across England. Between 1999 and 2011, CABE was the government’s advisor (some say watchdog) on architecture, urban design and public space.

CABE’s commitment to design was set out in, By Design - Urban design in the planning system: towards better practice (2000), this landmark document translated planning policy into design guidance and established 7 objectives for urban design:

  • Character, A place with its own identity;
  • Continuity and enclosure, A place where public and private spaces are clearly distinguished;
  • Quality of the public realm, A place with attractive and successful outdoor areas;
  • Ease of movement, A place that is easy to get to and move through;
  • Legibility, A place that has a clear image and is easy to understand;
  • Adaptability, A place that can change easily;
  • Diversity, A place with variety and choice.

As Government advisor, CABE established two important functions, design enabling (helping create and deliver better projects via hands-on support) and design review (tradition architectural crits for professionals). Both focused on drawing in a range of professionals in urbanism to provide advice.

CABE continues today as part of the Design Council but without statutory role or government funding.

To CABE at the Design Council’s credit, it continues its aim of creating great places and now has 250 renowned Built Environment Experts (BEEs) who can help support the delivery of high-quality design.

Whilst not a formal title, the distinction of CABE BEE provides some recognition of an individual’s place making skill.

Recognising Practice

Whilst CABE BEEs (created 2012), are part endorsed/ legitimised by CABE, the idea of identifying the role of the urban designer has been on the UK agenda for a number of years.

In 2007 the UDG developed the distinction of Recognised Practitioner in Urban Design. In the same year, The Academy of Urbanism was launched with its Academicians. Initially made up of 100 top urbanists, the group has now grown to 500. The mission of the academy is to recognise, encourage and celebrate great places across the UK, Europe and beyond, and the people and organisations that create and sustain them.

Eligibility for Recognised Practitioner is assessed using Capacitycheck. This simple method (similar to Placecheck) helps assess individual awareness, understanding and skills in the roles of urban design. Membership of the academy is based on a nomination system by peers and selection based on contribution to the making and shaping of places.

Today, individuals have 3 ways of showing their status as an urban designer; CABE BEE, UDG

Recognized Practitioner and Academy of Urbanism Academician.

However, none has professional (legal) status, protected title, standard contracts, or agreed insurances etc. This lack of sound legal position creates numerous opportunities for client-professional/ consultant misunderstandings and in turn, potential disputes.

For the UK, legal issues are compounded by having one institute per profession. The RIBA for Architects, RTPI for Town Planners, Landscape Institute for Landscape Architects, etc. Here each has their own agenda/ code of conduct and different membership skills and rules.

Residents undertaking a Placecheck of a historic mill complex.

Residents undertaking a Placecheck of a historic mill complex.

In Sweden, thankfully, these legal/ professional issues and conflicts are potentially reduced by the Swedish Association of Architects, as the professional organization for architects, interior architects, landscape architects and spatial planners. Having all of these built environment activities under one professional roof may create a natural home for the urban designer.


In 2013 Ed Vaizey, Government Minister, asked Terry Farrell to undertake a national review of architecture and the built environment. ‘The Farrell Review’ included a number of recommendations including the ‘Place Alliance’, the charter for which was to be drafted and championed by Professor Matthew Carmona at University College London.

The Place Alliance was launched in 2014. The vision is:

  1. That place quality has a value that is recognized by all.
  2. That the quality of buildings, streets, and spaces is always given a high priority by those who have the power to shape them
  3. That national and local government recognizes the vital contribution of the quality of place to the economic, social and cultural life of the nation and to achieving environmental sustainability
  4. That the professionals responsible for making and managing places, work constructively together and with local communities to shape high quality local environments.

Place Alliance aims to bring together organizations and individuals who share a belief that the quality of the built environment – the places in which we live work and play – have a profound influence on people’s lives.

The aim to avoid the over controlling hand of one profession or group.

The aim to avoid the over controlling hand of one profession or group.


This UK review highlights attempts to:

  1. Create agreed objectives/ principles for urban design.
  2. Ensure that professions and people work together in the creation of better places.
  3. Develop titles/ memberships that acknowledge the  role of an urban designer.

So what does this mean for Sweden?

At one level, it highlights the complexity of creating agreed principles for urban design. I have only cited a couple of examples, however, I suspect at least 10 variations exist in the UK. Whilst not a major issue, as most says the same, they add confusion.

Are we working to these principles or those principles?

The use of language is also problematic, with phrases like: continuity and enclosure, such terms are often misunderstood.

Try asking a local resident about legibility and see if you get answer. You can’t (usually) without a detailed explanation!

Plain English or Swedish is probably best.

[On a personal note, I enjoy that the Prince, managed to have a go at both modern architecture with; less might be more; too much is not enough (a reference to by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) and Art – Michelangelo accepted very few commissions for a free-standing abstract sculpture in the forecourt (a reference to a planning tax which resulted in, surprisingly, many abstract sculptures in forecourts.)]

The second outcome is the on-going importance of professions working together with the aim of creating successful places. The UK experience suggests organisations like the Place Alliance are needed on an on-going basis to promote joined up working across the built environment.

I’m a development economist, my equations and tax planning help shape high-quality places!

The last outcome, titles, is a work in progress and will be borne out over time. A decade ago, none existed, but today you can be a CABE BEE, Recognised Practitioner or Academician. None are institutions, however, each has a healthy membership.

Are 3 different organisations needed or will time slim them down to 1?

The above probably highlights the infancy of urban design. The RIBA was established in 1834 - comparatively, urban design is the new kid on the block.

So, urban designer – myth or reality?

My guess is reality, it’s the new kid on the block, developing and not going away. Maybe it’s the great thing about urban design, its fluid and being shaped.

So what is the shape of today’s UK urban designer?

The specialist-generalist facilitator- they cry!

To explain, I’m a qualified Architect and Town Planner (specialist) and can work with and understand well the skills other professions bring to shaping our environment (generalist). Many in the UK are.

A core aim of the Place Alliance (2014), UDAL (1997) and Architects in Planning (1978).

As Architect I was designer, as Urbanist, my role is to help draw out or facilitate (through discussion and debate) the ideas of communities, organisations and others and help turn them into reality. The facilitator.

A core aim of the Place Alliance (2014) and Prince in 1988.

Hence, the specialist-generalist facilitator.

David Chapman