The leading line:
next gen design codes
What needs to change for net zero and nature recovery to become the starting point for all new development? LDA Design’s Cambridge studio lead, Tom Perry, suggests a new generation of design codes with environmental vision is one answer.
“Design codes can be of enormous value in drawing the right conclusions about where and how development should happen, and the green and blue infrastructure that is needed.”
Tom Perry, Director, LDA Design
Design codes are being increasingly recognised as an important planning tool. In 2021, the Government revised the National Planning Policy Framework to require local planning authorities to prepare design guides or codes that set out simple, concise, illustrated design requirements, visual and numerical wherever possible, to provide specific, detailed parameters for development for a site or area. The revision was part of a drive to improve design quality and followed the National Model Design Code and guidance notes.
However, this happened when the national conversation was about beauty in the built environment. So, while in reality design is about how a place functions, the new framework and NMDC notes are failing to emphasise climate and nature, and what they mean for design characteristics and good design.
LDA Design sees design guides and codes as an important tool to realise environmental vision, and a strategic endeavour. They can be of enormous value in drawing the right conclusions about where and how development should happen, and the green and blue infrastructure that is needed.
When the Royal Town Planning Institute realised that design coding was punching below its weight, they linked up with the RSPB to commission LDA Design to explore how design codes can drive the change that we need to see in tackling the climate and nature emergencies. ‘Cracking the Code: How design codes can contribute to net-zero and nature’s recovery’, explores the radical changes that are needed.
Design codes need to operate at every scale, from a district level right down to individual sites. They need to be landscape-led in order to include a full set of design characteristics. This gives them the capacity to direct and facilitate climate mitigation and adaptation, resource efficiency and ecological recovery.
One critical change is viewing design codes in a different light. In order for design codes to become the leading line from which a place is drawn, they have to be introduced early in the planning and development process. At present, design codes are often given a restricted function, and emerge towards the end of the process where they are used to set standards for building heights, typologies and aesthetics. This doesn’t work.
The new generation of design codes also need to be more evidence based, drawing on robust analytics like carbon modelling, and solid environmental and ecological data. This can ensure that energy generation and changes in land use and natural systems are given proper weight, and that the benefits from growth are maximised.
The research has serious ramifications for national policy. Every aspect of planning and design is underpinned by climate, smart energy and nature, and these need to start to be given equal weight with housing, transport and economic growth. ‘Cracking the Code’ exposes where that kind of integration still needs to happen.
“A new generation of design coding can enable culture to change in several ways. Involving local communities closely in the process, for example, is a good way to enlarge response to the climate and ecological emergencies.”
What does ‘Cracking the Code’ offer? Starting with carbon and nature can lead to visionary solutions that take us beyond the status quo. The change has to be bold. When LDA Design previously researched decarbonising transport for the RTPI, and the role of spatial planning and place-based solutions, we found that tinkering would not work.
In developing ‘Cracking the Code’, the authors drew on the findings from a programme of workshops held with planners, developers, ecologists, architects, designers and transport and energy experts. The report also drew on 40 years of experience in developing strategic guidance as well as landscape-led design frameworks for major growth sites. LDA Design was supported by City Science, the data, climate and transport specialists, and ecologists from BSG Ecology.
The report provides practical guidance for those preparing their own codes, showing how to base them in the community’s vision, such as enabling people to engage with nature on an everyday basis. Decisions about where and how growth happens directly affect social equality. When development is sited in a place that can support low-carbon living, with active lifestyles and good public transport, there will be fairer access to jobs and services.
Two illustrative codes for districtwide and site-specific development underpin this research. They include the key design principles that set the big moves, and critical success factors with targets and timescales. They show what each landscape type looks like, down to plant typologies, and which areas need protection, joining up, or are of strategic importance. Design codes set alongside the local plan can turn an abstract debate about policies into a focussed discussion about the quality of placemaking, and at a scale that is familiar.
The report concludes that a new generation of design coding can enable culture to change in several ways. Involving local communities closely in the process, for example, is a good way to enlarge response to the climate and ecological emergencies.
Another way that design coding can change culture is by providing a focus for multidisciplinary working, which does not happen enough. The coding process requires shared learning between planners and communities and the development industry.
Landscape professionals bring a unique understanding of strategic scale and the evolution of places, and their close involvement with these emerging design codes is critical in order to arrive at creative solutions.
Whilst government is abandoning zonal planning, they are still advocating for use of design codes, and have announced new design code pathfinder projects across the country. The challenge is to use their funding and status to tackle a range of issues, from viability of sites to disenfranchised communities. Far from being a constraint, design codes can steer good growth and start making the sort of places we need for the future.
This article by Tom Perry was first published in the Landscape Journal, ‘Planning for Beauty’.