Can we code
for beauty?

“If you are working with the landscape of a place, there’s a good chance you’ll have a framework that in the future someone might come back to and recognise as beautiful.” 

Frazer Osment, Chair, LDA Design

When Place Alliance carried out a housing audit published in 2020, it found that the design for three quarters of new development audited was overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’. One in five should have been refused planning. Meanwhile, office blocks converted into homes under permitted development rights have been described by the TCPA as “slums of the future”.

It is little wonder, then, that new housing is rarely welcomed by its neighbours. With housing a key concern in the July election, could new design codes, which local authorities are now required to use, help us to deliver on quality as well as quantity?

For a recent episode of the podcast Planning Unplugged, LDA Design’s Chair, Frazer Osment, Professor Matthew Carmona from UCL and Nicola Cotton from law firm Womble Bond & Dickinson discussed the value of design codes and how beauty factors into planning.

Design codes are essentially easy to understand, focussed, unambiguous rules to shape a new development or place. The design coding introduced with the 2023 Levelling Up and Regeneration Act is intended to replace vaguer and less consistent local authority policies.

On the surface, design codes may seem to be more about materials, appearance and aesthetics. But there is a bigger purpose, as Osment and Carmona explain. Design codes can help create the places that society wants and needs. For the code to work well, it needs to establish a robust framework with positive outcomes based on good design principles, and in the context of social inclusion, climate and biodiversity. It has to make us think more deeply as to what we want out of the design process.

Design codes don’t necessarily relate to beauty but they can help root new development into a deeper understanding of context, heritage and how a place properly functions. And that can lead to more beautiful places. As Osment explains, “If you are working with the landscape of a place, there’s a good chance you’ll have a framework that in the future someone might come back to and recognise as beautiful.”

Concepts of beauty can be nebulous and even divisive and successful places might not always be what we regard as traditionally beautiful. Carmona pointed out that many successful and popular places are not traditionally beautiful. In south east London, for example, Peckham High Street is recognised for providing strong support to the people who live there, with its thriving local economy.

Key to the creation of a successful new place is defining with a community the important aspects required of a design and specifying those into code.

Trying to codify everything is a risk, and both Osment and Carmona argue for a staged approach, starting with the two or three things that matter most. These are likely to relate to climate resilience, nature loss and social equity and inclusion. Movingly, Osment recalled one person wanted to see a pond in a new development, somewhere to take his grandchildren. This would make the place beautiful to him. Drawing on details like this to paint a bigger, more human picture of what a code can achieve means new development can deliver on the kind of quality we desperately need to see as we also push for quantity. It can mean that new development is warmly welcomed by the community.

Image: Alistair Macrobert / Unsplash 

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