Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) (WTC 102)


  1.  The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is an Executive Non-Departmental Public Body, established by the Government in 1999 to promote high standards in the design of new buildings and the spaces between them. Its remit covers England.

  2.  CABE is funded by grant-in-aid from the Department for Culture Media and Sport. It also receives resources from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, principally to promote the importance of good urban design.

  3.  Commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport. They are drawn from a range of areas of expertise and include architects, planners, an engineer, a quantity surveyor and specialists in the field of housing design and built environment education.

  4.  CABE organises its activities under six main programmes: design review, project enabling, public affairs and government, the regions, research and education. The design review committee advises on the design of around seventy new developments each year. The project enabling panel provides technical assistance on matters such as brief development, selection of architects or choice of procurement route.

  5.  CABE fully supports the Government's recommendations for action listed in Encouraging Walking: Advice to Local Authorities (DETR 2000, pp24-26) and endorses the promotion of walking as a means of improving the health of the population. It commends the Government's Home Zones Initiative, the Safe Routes to School Initiative, the integration of walking into local transport plans and the production by DETR of Places Streets and Movement, the companion guide to Planning Policy Guidance Note 13. It also welcomes the Government's desire, expressed in the Urban White Paper, for "good design and planning which makes it practical to live in a more environmentally sustainable way, with less noise, pollution and traffic congestion". (Our Towns and Cities: The Future, DETR 2000, p30).

  6.  CABE believes that walkers should be given primacy in the urban environment and seen as being at the apex of the transport hierarchy; walking is still the main means of movement in towns and cities and the planning of our streets should reflect that. In particular, phasing of pedestrian crossings needs to take account of walkers' needs and pedestrians must be able to move around at surface level rather than being forced into dank underpasses or up steps onto footbridges. CABE's design review committee frequently makes these points when advising on proposals for large urban redevelopments.

  The New Opportunities Fund's Transforming Communities Programme should place an emphasis on petits projets which improve local environments.

  Clear targets should be introduced for the removal of major pedestrian underpasses and their replacement with surface crossings.

  7.  CABE believes that good urban design, increased levels of walking and the achievement of sustainable urban regeneration are all to some degree interdependent. For example, more attractive buildings and spaces encourage walking and walking in turn helps to deliver more vital and viable neighbourhoods, in part by increasing levels of passing trade. It can also be argued that increased walking levels themselves help to improve the quality of the urban environment, as people begin to connect with their surroundings, notice deficiencies and demand improvements.

  8.  By Design—Urban Design in the Planning System: Towards Better Practice (DETR/CABE 2000) provides a working definition of good urban design, namely as design that offers a distinct sense of place responding to local context; continuity of frontages and clearly defined public space; safe, attractive and functional public space; an accessible, well-connected, pedestrian-friendly environment; a readily understandable, easily navigable environment; flexible and adaptable public and private environments; and a varied environment offering a range of uses and experiences.

  9.  Recent urban design improvements in central Birmingham, aimed in part at improving pedestrian connections across the inner ring road, generally accord with these principles and therefore offer a good example of the impact of good urban design on walking levels and urban regeneration.

  10.  It is now possible to walk from Birmingham New Street Station to Brindleyplace (a distance of around 700 yards) through an attractive sequence of car-free streets and spaces. Birmingham City Council has estimated that footfall in the first part of this sequence (along New Street to Victoria Square) has increased by 50 per cent since pedestrianisation and that shop owners in New Street have reported increased trade. It is probable (though not yet confirmed by research) that a large number of people now walk from the railway station to Brindleyplace who would previously have been deterred by traffic and a generally poor urban environment from venturing beyond Victoria Street. If this is true, it can be expected that central Birmingham has benefited economically.

  11.  Recent research undertaken by the University of London on behalf of CABE and DETR suggests that good urban design adds to the economic, social and environmental value of new development, in part by supporting life-giving mixed-use elements such as shops and bars and by making people feel safer when they use or walk through the development (The Value of Urban Design, CABE/DETR 2001). The Brindleyplace development in Birmingham, which the researchers scored highly for urban design, has achieved rents of £25 psf for offices and restaurants, above regional levels. By contrast, the Standard Court development in Nottingham, rated low by the researchers for urban design, achieves rents below the city average. Both developments are close to their respective city centres, but whereas Brindleyplace is easily accessible and navigable on foot, Standard Court is cut off from the city centre by a major road and was characterised by the researchers as "desolate and disconnected" (ibid, p42). It can be inferred from this limited research that urban development is likely to be more successful if it caters properly for pedestrians by creating an accessible, legible and permeable environment.

  12.  Rather than try to encourage walking in environments not conductive to it, it makes more sense in CABE's view to create conditions in which walking will follow naturally. This implies an approach to urban regeneration which is broadly in line with Government policy, again as expressed in the Urban White Paper.

  13.  At the macro level, it suggests encouraging the development of new housing to reasonable densities on brownfield land, as recommended in Planning Policy Guidance Note 3. It also suggests encouraging new commercial development close to major transport interchanges. In this way, walking will start to be possible (and preferable) as a method of commuting.

  14.  Above all, it suggests that towns and cities should be designed well, so that walking becomes a positively attractive option. Pedestrian routes through our towns and cities are too often cut off at key points or intersections by roads or shopping complexes. CABE's design review committee is all too familiar with large-scale developments which block pedestrian movement; a further problem is that they present blank facades to the street, so that they reduce the pedestrian's sense of personal safety and are visually unappealing. The standard cul-de-sac layout of new housing schemes also tends to promote car dependency and reduce pedestrian movements, while at the same time putting additional pressure on connector routes and making them less safe for pedestrians.

  Planning authorities should seek to ensure that individual developments make a contribution to the public realm and thus to the walking environment.

  Planning authorities should encourage housing developments which are permeable and legible.

  The current DETR review of section 106 agreements should take account of the need to encourage developers to contribute to the pedestrian environment.

  The quality of the pedestrian environment should be a key criterion when the Government introduces a link between urban design quality and Beacon Council status.

  15.  Holistic urban design solutions are essential if this goal is to be achieved. It is no accident that those British cities which are regarded as highly successful in urban design terms (eg Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and York) were laid out when walking was a primary means of locomotion and have retained their basic plan ever since. In all these cities (as indeed in continental cities such as Rome and Venice) the pedestrian is drawn almost naturally from one side of the city centre to the other by a sequence of attractive streets and spaces of varying shapes and sizes. The experience of present-day Birmingham shows that it is possible, through careful design, to recreate something of this effect even in a city which has been remodelled for the motor car.

  16.  In London too, it is almost possible to walk across the whole of the city centre, from Kensington Palace to Tower Bridge, without encountering traffic, by following a path through the Royal Parks and then along the South Bank. This is not necessarily widely known, even to Londoners—excusably so, because although there is the potential for a beguiling sequence of spaces in London (The South Bank, Somerset House, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards' Parade and the Royal Parks might form the bones of it) these spaces are rarely seen as having much to do with each other.

  17.  The Silver Jubilee Walkway, set out in 1977, represented a useful attempt to promote urban walking as a pleasurable activity by thinking holistically. The pavement plaques installed across London at that time remain not only a visible commemoration but a useful way finder.

  The Greater London Authority (and outside London the city councils) should take a leading role in promoting the co-ordination necessary to create and protect key walking routes.

  The development of a network of walking routes in towns and cities across Britain might by considered as a means of celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002. Local authorities should take the lead, in consultation with local interests.

  18.  At the micro level, design is equally important. Urban walking will be truly encouraged only if the various impedimenta encountered by pedestrians—broken paving, dog faeces, obstructive street furniture and the detritus deposited by statutory undertakers—are either repaired, cleaned up, better sited or cleared away promptly when no longer required. Walking cannot be a pleasure when urban pavements resemble an assault course which the elderly, the infirm or mothers with children stand little change of negotiating safely. At the same time, highly engineered streetscapes (justified on grounds of safety) easily lead to pedestrian-unfriendly environments, with walkers being corralled behind barriers and herded through narrow openings.

  19.  Conversely, walking can be made a more pleasurable experience if it is properly "serviced"—in other words if well-designed and well-sited seating, refreshment kiosks, public lavatories and other items of street furniture are provided. CABE and DETR will shortly be undertaking research on the barriers to better streetscapes to establish whether institutional impediments to good practice exist and, if so, how they might be overcome.

  20.  In conclusion, CABE takes the view that a holistic approach to the urban environment and good design (of both buildings and the spaces between them) are two of the key means by which urban walking will be encouraged. By addressing these issues it should be possible to begin to recast walking as a popular leisure activity.


February 2001

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