Listen, you can hear
the train coming

We live in uncertain times, which means we have to be more purposeful about how we shape the built environment. Yet even now, the narrative for some of the most significant plans in the UK is falling well short, argues LDA Design’s Alister Kratt

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skilful execution…. Quality also marks the search for an ideal after necessity has been satisfied and mere usefulness achieved.”

John Ruskin

‘When I arrived in Lyons aged 13 for my first French exchange, I was surprised to be driven straight to a field. I was beckoned to follow Pierre and his dad across towards the rail line. A few minutes later, thundering down the track came a TGV.  “ECOUTEZ LE TRAIN!” yelled Pierre’s dad.  

How would you feel if you heard that high speed rail was coming to within half a kilometre of your home? Would a trackside spot be the first place you took a visitor? 

Yet Pierre’s father was far from alone in his pride and enthusiasm. Clocking 236mph in that first year, this high-tech advance was widely seen as core to France’s future success. 


Champions or naysayers?

We are at a time of massive investment in our own transport, digital and energy infrastructure in the UK. Is it, like the TGV, speaking clearly to a better future? Do we want to champion it, and find out more? Is it expressing our culture and responding to our aspirations and concerns?

The Victoria Embankment shows how infrastructure worth its salt should look beyond the red line. Joseph Bazelgette’s original commission was to save Londoners from a cholera epidemic, with a new pipe to safely dispose of foul water. Deciding that the project could deliver much more, he designed to provide for new underground rail and river frontage. He went beyond operational requirements and took the broadest view of the commission, aiming for lasting legacy.

A cross-section of Bazalgette's Victoria Embankment, 1867

The dot on the map where a train stops can grow into an equitable place which is connected, healthy and resilient.

Surveys repeatedly show that people point to community benefit as the most important factor in a project’s success – the way in which the new infrastructure supports daily lives, and helps places to function better. The dot on the map where a train stops can grow into an equitable place which is connected, healthy and resilient.

Design is as much about a good process as it is about delivering a product. It turns out that listening is as important as a strong vision, because every project needs to be rooted in an understanding of human need. So design thinking starts with empathising, according to (Institute of Design at Stanford). Only then can the problem be defined, thought about, prototyped and tested.

Last year, McKinsey reported on how good design can unlock value for business, with analytical leadership, a broad range of talent, iteration and a focus on user experience. This process readily translates into the world of infrastructure design, with focused leadership, different professional disciplines collaborating; and an iterative process to capture all the issues.


The strength of people first 

We live in uncertain times, which require us to be more purposeful about the curation of the built environment and more attentive in protecting the natural environment. 

This should be expressed in fresh thinking when it comes to new opportunities for integrated infrastructure. We should expect every plan to present an impressive and credible response to the climate emergency. Zero carbon is only one step towards genuine re-engagement with the environment, but it is an important one.

Yet even now, the narrative for some of the most significant plans in the UK is falling well short. 

Take the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, where a clear vision to orchestrate change at scale, rooted in environmental quality, is pretty well absent. The dominant, highly controversial promise is a new expressway, a £3.5bn scheme linking the two cities along a corridor where a million homes could be built. The extra traffic generated will mean expanding existing roads. 

Those arguing the case for an expressway say it will ensure the region is not left behind, and maximise economic potential.  It is true that the Arc will need to find its global competitive edge. But it is high-quality placemaking, supported by sustainable and accountable connectivity, which will provide that edge, and attract a highly skilled workforce for generations to come.  

Oxfordshire County Council has said that a new expressway flies in the face of its efforts to reduce dependency on the car. Is it time to put the emphasis on great placemaking instead?

Infrastructure at this kind of scale requires real dialogue so that proposals can develop in a transparent, democratic way, giving communities clarity on the spatial dimensions of the scheme. This means new thinking can emerge from the bottom up as well as come from the top down.

Much has been written when it comes to the Arc, but little has been drawn – and this lack of obvious spatial planning and illustrated vision is hampering public understanding and acceptance. The impacts from regional and national infrastructure are felt most keenly at local level, and they need to be explored at the earliest opportunity as part of the design process.

The Arc is not a Grand Projet to be defined or determined by infrastructure. Instead it should be characterised by ‘good growth’, supported by infrastructure. This would explore where growth and change would be best located and find the best balance between growing existing places for their betterment and establishing new communities. All of those places need framing in a landscape that is climate resilient, fit for the future and provides for farming, enterprise and health and wellbeing.


The case for social value

An approach focused on good growth inevitably moves the creation of social value to the heart of decision-making. In ‘The Value of Design’, the National Infrastructure Commission draws on case studies that show how it can be created. For Northala Fields in west London, for example, LDA Design diverted construction waste from landfill to create distinctive conical hills which shield people in the park from a busy road.

Made from construction waste, the hills of Northala Fields stand like ancient burial grounds. They are a brilliant shield from the busy neighbouring road.

The proposed Swansea Tidal Lagoon shows how an energy project can create social value in myriad ways. It will protect Swansea from tidal surges and flooding, enable regeneration of the port and create new beach and saltwater marshland. It will also provide an attractive setting to Swansea University’s new Bay Campus and support tourism. This is about designing infrastructure to strengthen local culture and protect the environment as well as promote equity through more affordable energy.

Development consent for the tidal lagoon comes to an end in June. As a pathfinder, it carries a risk which the Government does not yet seem prepared to accept. It would probably have felt equally risky to give Bazalgette permission to completely reconfigure the Embankment. Lagoons are however back in the news, as the political parties promote their manifestos and seek to respond to the climate crisis

Design is as much about a good process as it is about delivering a product. Listening is as important as a strong vision.

When design is embedded into the culture of infrastructure planning, this saves money, reduces risk and adds value. It avoids society being forced to seek comfort in planning mitigation. Such comfort feels – and is – insufficient.

Better to start well and finish well. Establish design principles early in the life of a project and seek multiple outcomes for the investment. Use those principles to guard the vision and support the narrative. Use them, even, to curate the entire delivery process. The vision for any new infrastructure in the UK should represent the kind of places we will need, and the kind of country we want to become.  

“Ecoutez le train!”.  A lesson for us all.


This Long Read is a summary of a talk given by Alister to the National Infrastructure Conference in 2019 and highlights LDA Design’s input into the Estates Gazette’s Oxford Cambridge Arc conference 2019.

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