A Review of the New National Model Design Code Part II

The New National Model Design Code and Associated Guidance can be found here.

Part I of my review covering the main proposed NPPF changes is here.

I was previously suspicious about the concept here as design codes are essentially local documents, however the resulting document is essentially a how to document and template, given the skill base and understanding of coding in England that is sorely needed.

David Rudlin and Urbed have done an excellent job. The document is profusely illustrated and is likely to be very influential in shifting thinking and practice, similar to the influence if the 1965 development plans manual or (retrogressively) DB32 in 1977. If anything the illustrations are too pin sharp. Urban design progresses from rough sketches and butter paper and this shows the formative and evolutionary nature of developing design concepts.

The meaning of a code has shifted. Originally in uk practice they referred to documents implementing a masterplan and regulating the form of development. What internationally in often called ‘bulk zoning’ as opposed to just ‘land use zoning’, but also more than that controlling the form not just the physical amount of development (for example by FAR). Although the glossary definition in the NPPF remains unchanged (below).

Design code: A set of illustrated design requirements that provide specific, detailed parameters for the physical development of a site or area. The graphic and written components of the code should build upon a design vision, such as a masterplan or other design and development framework for a site or area.

It is clear that the scope has shifted in line with international best practice to encompass also form based zoning, zoning with typologies of acceptable urban forms in existing urban areas not just new sites. Clearly this will be an enormous paradigm shift for English Planning and will be enormously challenging of skills and resources. Just how these are put into play will depend on the outcome of planning reforms and zoning. Currently it is legally clumsy to implement masterplans, parameter plans and design codes in England requiring fat S106s and dozens of conditions. In a well designed zoning and subdivision system you simply amend your local authorities development ordnance – that’s it. As I constantly emphasis on here its not just zoning. zoning sits within an ecosystem of other necessary measures to make zoning for new development work, including subdivision, form based coding, exaction systems etc. The new guidance is light on that however legal implementation is the responsibility of the government in taking planning reform further later this year.

Beauty is the buzzword and rightly so. Apart from AONBs it appeared nowhere in the British Planning lexicon. The English Landscape tradition however (Capability Brown, Humphry Repton) and the school of Camillo Sitte placed beauty front and centre, with its concern for the ‘picturesque’ and this influenced a number of UK planners noticeably Raymond Unwin and Frederick Gibbard. Planning for the picturesque is the key missing ingredient than turns merely good urban design to beautiful places, there is a small reference to this on page 44 of the guidance however, but not enough. The development of the guidance would enormously benefit from a section on planning for the picturesque. There are influences here such as the townscape tradition of Gordon Cullen, Gehl’s critique of ‘Birdshit planning‘ (not planning at the level of the human eye but from the sky) and Kevin Lynch’s work on mental maps and urban form. What all these have in common is a focus on how humans perceive places as they see them and look at them. Creating beautiful places depends on ‘framing’ to use Unwin’s term he used in Town Planning in Practice. Just like a photographer frames a composition by arranging a model, scenery and lighting in shot to create a balanced composition, dynamism and tension, a planner/designer looks to create picturesque views and vistas as you you towards and from places and streets. This, and i’ve long wanted to finish a book on this, requires adjusting street and layouts and buildings forms to compose attractive silhouettes, in layers foreground to background, drama as you are led through places and mood formed by colour of materials and planting. It requires reworking the ‘2d’ elements so that layout, positioning and form of key buildings and layout of public spaces work in 3d.

The elements of what creates the picturesque can be scientifically analyzed and reproduced, as this planned village, Clovelly shows

The guide might perhaps have said a little more on how settlement forms and vernacular housing types evolved to meet the challenges of the landscape.

The focus on vision before you code is welcome. The Planning White paper seemed to scheme the vision/policy phase altogether. Although the concept of transect is implicit on page 13 of the guidance I would have liked it more expressly referred to as a potential organizing principal and common language for coding.

On masterplanning the concept of parameter planning is implicit on page 15 but I would have prefer if they had defined terms such as illustrative masterplan, regulating plan and parameter plan, as parameter plans are defined in NPPG.

On movement the reference to street hierarchy is confusing as practice (such as in Manual for Streets and the Scottish Streets design guide) has moved to a ‘Link Place’ matrix following the writings of Peter Jones. It say it aligns with MfS but the very use of the terminology ‘hierarchy’ assumes a traffic function not a place one.

On Cycling I think it is weak. It should incorporate ideas from Dutch Practice such as the CROW Design Guide and Hans Modermans ‘design by negotiation’ (face to face contacts where there is conflict in low speed areas). In particular the need for a dense dedicated and segregated cycle network. It should also refer to filtered permeability with LTNs just being an application of this. The reference to ‘supported by the community’ is vague, does this include cyclist passing through and what about masterplanned areas where there is no residents. It would be better if they referred to the urban design principle ‘filtered permeability’ rather than a likely to be rapidly out of date programme.

On Car Parking we still have the out of date NPPF wording about maximum parking standards, which still allows places like Derbyshire to require 3 cars per unit even in town centres. It should say maximum parking should be applied in highly accessible areas. The guidance refers to polar extremes of no parking and underground parking in dense urban areas. The best practice approach in europe is around 0.2-0.3 spaces per unit shared on street and nearby (often in city car clubs). Sub basement parking has had a devastating impact on facades in much of London.

On refuse collection options vacume utility networks (as used at Quintain Wembley) should be added as an option.

The sections on open space and flooding are really very good and I have no major comments.

On trees we have a rather silly new NPPF policy that all streets should be tree lined ‘Unless, in specific cases, there are clear, justifiable and compelling reasons why this would be inappropriate.’ Stamford here is really suffering from lack of trees. It should see ‘other than in dense tighly knit streets and allys where buildings form a strong building line to the street’.

Stamford – no trees required

There is a technical error relating to Plot Ratio and FAR. Plot ratio in English Usage was the inverse of FAR. Im sure they meant to say Plot Coverage Ration (PCR).

On blocks it refers to blocks on one page and permiter blocks the next, referring to the same thing. Then on page 35 all of which are perimter blocks referring only to one as such – confusing.

On building line character should also refer to topography, excessively curving street pattern for no reason or pictureseque effect is a curse of so many housebuilders layouts.

Historically streets curved for a reason, such as managing levels. This also creates what Unwin referred to as ‘revealed views’.

The reference to Tandam ‘beds in sheds’ on page 36 would be best removed, accessory dwellings off an alley would be fine.

A small point the reference to encouraging MMC through ‘regular plot widths’ should add ‘where appropriate’. I remember a minister of Housing of one country that set a regulation that every house have the same plot width, which because of mountainous terrain meant some houses were so small as to be uninhabitable.

I stress I have no real comments of substance on the rest of the document. With small refinement it will be a world class document.

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