Designing the sustainable cities of the future

Westminster University has launched a new course that will give urban planners the tools they need to design the sustainable cities of the future. Rod James spoke to course designer Suzy Nelson to find out what’s on the curriculum, and how healing the rift between planners and architects is central to future success.


Future city

Across the developing world, a rapid process of urbanisation is taking place. The United Nations' World Urbanisation Prospects report published in 2014 puts the current proportion of people living in cities at 54%, with this figure set to rise to 66% by the year 2050. This dramatic transition throws up big questions, the answers to which will help decide the economic and social prospects of huge numbers of people. Central to this is a multidisciplinary approach that brings together architects and urban planners, who unfortunately haven't always seen eye-to-eye.

While urban planners and architects have the same fundamental goal, they have tended to approach it in different ways. Architects, even if mindful of socioeconomic context, have generally placed stronger emphasis on aesthetics, the ability of strikingly designed buildings to define the place in which they stand. For urban planners, socioeconomic context has tended to be the primary consideration, which in turn has seen function dictate plans and physical form take a back seat. Put simply, it's the artistry of the architect versus the rationality of the planner.

There are problems inherent in both approaches. Architecture at its worse can be infused with ego, resulting in buildings that say more about the individual who designed them than the places and people who have to look at them every day. At the same time, being overly scientific and focused on function can result in the creation of places that successfully serve a purpose but arouse no pride and passion, something which really good architecture can do. The differences between the two tribes have led to a degree of friction and many projects that could have been considerably better if opened up to a fresh perspective.

A multidisciplinary approach to urban planning

A new course set to start in September at the University of Westminster in London has been formed to try and bridge this gap in understanding. The Designing Cities: Planning and Architecture BA Honours aims to give the urban planners of the future the architectural design knowledge to help better deal with the big questions posed by rapid urbanisation. Most planners are only trained at Masters level; acting course lead Suzy Nelson hopes that a four-year education that encourages planners to think more like architects will give students a much deeper, more varied understanding of what urban planning can be.

"A lack of effective collaboration and a tendency towards antagonism between the two professions doesn't produce the best results in terms of tackling the issues that we face in designing cities," says Nelson: "We talked to employers and this confirmed our view that there's a gap in the market. You need planners who understand the socio-economic issues in cities but who are also able to develop creative solutions."

"A lack of effective collaboration and a tendency towards antagonism between the two professions doesn't produce the best results."

The course has received a strong response from the industry. Katy Neaves, executive chair of the Urban Design Group and head of visual impact assessment at UK planning outfit Turley, has praised the course for providing a "wider appreciation of urban planning and architectural design in an international context". London-based property developer Goldcrest Land has agreed to offer a £1000-a-year scholarship for three years to one fortunate student, and a number of work experience placements have been agreed for the third year of study -- pretty impressive considering that the course has not yet even begun. The course also emphasises working with local communities to address urban planning needs from the bottom up, in the UK but also overseas.

"In the second year we are going to do an international field trip -- we want students to look beyond the UK and beyond London in terms of where they might work," Nelson says. "That will probably mean the fringes of Europe, maybe Greece or Portugal. We are quite keen to connect with real communities through our projects... In the international field trip we'll link up with academic institutions in other countries and hopefully with NGOs as well. We don't want to be going in saying 'this is the solution' without actually hearing from people on the ground."

Planning PR problem

The need is not just for more urban planners with a design sensibility, but for more urban planners full stop. For a job that is so in demand and important to sustainable development, few young people really know what the job is or what it entails, unlike architecture, which maintains a certain prestige. Those that do know may have been discouraged by negative perceptions in the media, where planners are seen primarily as enforcers of rules and regulations.

"I think partly because geography is quite low profile in the secondary curriculum and that is the closest subject to planning that people learn at school..." Nelson theorises. "That doesn't help. Also I think the media [portrayal of the] role of planners, generally, is focused on the regulatory function of development and control, which is quite a negative image. Planning is a creative process. I think there is a broader problem around the image of planners and that's reflected often by politicians who see planning as a brake on development rather than something that facilitates development."

In January a course head was appointed - Italian native Giulio Verdini, current associate professor in urban planning and design and co-director of the Research Institute of Urbanisation at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China.

The appointment will bring valuable experience of a country where rapid urbanisation presents a massive challenge. China is forecast to see its urban population increase by 292 million between 2014 and 2050. With growth estimates like that, new graduates, particularly those with a sense of adventure, won't be short of work.

"All of our masters graduates get snapped up," Nelson says. "Employers are always saying 'can you let your students know about this job opportunity. I think there's a very good job market in planning."