Capturing the current situation: a 'plan of plans'

Integrated urban design and some joined-up thinking at Houghton Regis: by guest author David Edwards

Urban design is a strange discipline. A sweeping statement, I know – and certainly one that does not come close to justifying its complexity or significance. Definitions vary greatly, often focusing on a particular scale, activity or specialism. Paradoxically, the most accurate descriptions are perhaps those that are more general, such as; ‘the art of creating and shaping cities and towns’ (urbandesign.org) or, ‘the design of towns and cities, streets and spaces… it is the collaborative and multi-disciplinary process of shaping the physical setting for life in cities, towns and villages; the art of making places’ (Urban Design Group).

The Urban Design Group’s interpretation is particularly significant as it recognises the truly multi-faceted nature of the profession. It is this fusion of different specialisms and the diversity of projects that for me, makes urban design so unique, stimulating and rewarding.

I first really began to appreciate urbanism as a Masters student. At the time, there were no dedicated urban design undergraduate courses in the UK (the Scandinavians and Dutch were already well ahead here!). Instead, urban scale components filtered into the curriculum of various specialist courses. Primarily, these were town planning, landscape architecture and architecture but also, in studies of geography, economics, civil engineering, transport planning, quantity surveying, ecology and environment, heritage and conservation, project management, property and real estate.

Today, it is recognised as a specialist discipline in its own right and a number of colleges and universities across the UK now offer courses that provide an overarching understanding of the multi-disciplinary aspects that collectively make up the practice of urban design.

Consequently, urban designers have a good appreciation of the impact and arrangement of development across different scales and conditions. Often, this is coupled with a particular area of interest or expertise, ranging from development control, design and sustainability to economics, engagement and delivery. Given the many factors that influence the dynamics of the built and rural environment, it is no wonder that urban design is so complex and expansive!

Much like our towns and cities, villages and neighbourhoods, to me, it represents the coming together of many parts to create something special. A seamless (if not perhaps a little procrastinated!) link to the study in question…

Last year, The terra firma Consultancy and Place-Make were engaged by Central Bedfordshire Council to review existing conditions in the historic market town of Houghton Regis and the impact of proposed expansion that will result in doubling the existing number of homes and residents in the settlement. Working closely with CBC’s Regeneration and Place Directorate teams, the core deliverable was the preparation of an overarching place-shaping strategy that would help to integrate new and existing communities and support a unifying sense of identity.

Strategically located up to 30km from North London and alongside a new M1 junction with a connection to the A5, Houghton Regis’ growth potential is being realised through the delivery of up to 7,000 new homes with supporting infrastructure and facilities. While representing a unique development opportunity, this also presents significant implications for the semi-rural character of the existing settlement.

Houghton Regis Plan of Plans
Capturing the current situation: creating a ‘plan of plans’

In response, the place-shaping strategy considered the impact of new development at both a macro and a micro scale and also, from an urban and a rural perspective, including the following aspects;

  • Strategic location – close to the Chiltern Hills yet with good transport connections to London and across the proposed Cambridge – Milton Keynes – Oxford corridor.
  • The settlement’s contrasting edge conditions; urban southern and eastern edges and a rural northern outlook.
  • The role, character and offering of the existing town centre.
  • A historic core and heritage assets.
  • Movement and circulation.
  • The use and function of existing areas of opens space for leisure and recreation.
  • Retention of physical and visual connections to the wider green infrastructure.
  • Visual impact from the rural landscape north of the town.
  • Existing residential areas that were initially planned according to adjusted Radburn principles and the opportunities for regeneration within these.
  • Current and emerging development policy and committed strategic initiatives.
  • The allowance and arrangement of non-residential activities; education, leisure and employment generating activities.
  • Potential action areas for new development, investment and regeneration.
Opportunities for estate regeneration
Opportunities for estate regeneration

 

Of particular significance is ensuring cohesion between new and existing communities and retaining the settlement’s semi-rural character given the location of proposed development around its rural edge. To assist in resolving each of these, an underlying green infrastructure has been considered. This would help to marry new and existing areas, incorporate links to the wider green infrastructure, sustain ecology and biodiversity, connect existing open spaces, provide opportunities for sustainable drainage and assist in mitigating visual impact.

 

Identifying the design drivers for strategic planning
Identifying the design drivers for strategic planning

The strategy was presented at the end of 2017 for review by CBC’s internal teams and key stakeholders and the team has since been appointed to prepare development briefs for four of the identified action areas; town centre, estate regeneration and two mixed-use hubs.

With its contrasting edge conditions, semi-rural character, relatively compact form and good transport links, many aspects that have directed the place-shaping study will be equally relevant to other settlements that are within commuting distance of London and have been identified for growth and expansion.

Additionally, having involved many multi-disciplinary considerations to arrive at a coherent, sustainable and place-led vision with actionable ‘next steps’, the study also represents a fantastic example of urban design; ‘the art of creating and shaping cities and towns’.

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David is a graduate of Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh College of Art, a Chartered Architect (RIBA; Danish Architecture Association MAA) and a member of the Design Review Panel for the South Downs National Park.

Place-MakePlace-Make was formed by David in 2012 to provide a particular focus on ‘place-making’ – from regeneration and strategy to the planning and design of bespoke buildings and places. Further information can be found at:  https://www.place-make.com/practice.

Place-Make and terra firma have collaborated on a number of projects across the UK and overseas.

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