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Seeing is believing

07th June 2012

By Rob Cowan

The Urban Design Group challenged its members to write a ‘lift pitch’. The UDG asked: if you shared a lift journey with a government minister, what would you say -- in 300 words -- to convince him or her of the value of urban design? It’s not easy! Here is what I wrote:

People value places that are planned, designed and built with care. You only have to look at the buildings, streets and neighbourhoods that people with choice choose to live in. But there is disagreement about whether or how public policy can help to create such places. Some of the historical places we admire – such as Bath, Edinburgh new town and the London squares – were devised by landowners who had the power to make things happen. Other valued historic places grew haphazardly at a time when buildings were made by local craftsmen with local materials to suit people who moved around mainly on foot.

Today those conditions rarely exist, and great places – even half-decent ones – rarely happen by chance. Every day thousands of decisions are made that have an impact on the quality of a place. Most of them are made by people who have a specific interest in creating a building for a particular purpose, or to support a particular function, such as keeping the traffic moving. Few of these decisions are made with an eye to making a pleasant place for other people who happen to live or work there, or visit.

Urban design – a process of working together to shape a city, town, village or neighbourhood – can make a success of places that would otherwise be dismal non-places. The evidence for this is in the small number of places that have been created recently that are distinctively better – in terms of their social, economic and environmental impacts – than what is usually achieved in similar circumstances. The only way to see that evidence is to visit those places and to find out how they were created. We would be pleased to take you to a selection and show how at different scales – from town extensions to street crossings – urban design can make a difference.

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