What is the difference between an immaculate, well thought out master plan and a real, successful, working bit of Urban Design? Well as Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential Campaign once put it: “The economy, stupid” or rather, as outlined in the lecture we received from economics consultant Aiden Oswell, an effective economic strategy. In this blog I hope to explain in simple terms, the relationship between successful urban design and economics.
An Effective Economic Strategy
What is an Effective Economic Strategy? Well simply put, the value of the final working design has to be greater than the value of the resources put into producing it (‘the price’). If this is not the case, then depending on what stage in the process this revelation is had, you will either have a pretty drawing and little else, or a development which is too expensive and therefore poorly maintained. To determine whether the value of a development is greater than the price,we must first understand how value is defined.
In an urban design context (or indeed, any design context), value can be defined in two inherently different ways:
Quantitative, real, measurable value such as floor space or money (or at least, something easily translatable into money).
Qualitative design value which affects how people inhabit and use a development such as aesthetic or experiential quality (often harder to translate into monetary terms).
The exact relationship between quantitative and qualitative design value is a point of debate. However in general practice it is often assumed that:
A. good design is more expensive monetarily to achieve (either due to greater man hours gone into design work or more complex/expensive construction and materials deriving from more extensive design).
B. good design generates greater monetary value from a development by producing more desirable spaces and therefore greater inhabitation and use by people (Design Council report “The value of good design”).
In the case of private sector development, the quantitative value is almost always the most important of the two with qualitative value considered only as a means to increase this quantitative value. In the case of public sector development the two types of value are linked because the investor (the public body) and the user (members of the public) are theoretically the same.
Aiden tells us that Economics is as much an art as it is a science. The value of a development is affected by more than just quantitative, objective measures such as distances, floor areas and parking spaces. Qualitative factors must also be taken into consideration; how a space feels, how it looks and how it is perceived and talked about. Ultimately the success or failure of a development depends on how it is used and interacted with by people and although a psychologist may be able to suggest otherwise, human behavior is difficult to quantify.
As Urban Designers it is our goal to create developments and interventions which improve the urban environment for its users but this can’t happen without also making a development more profitable for its investors (otherwise, it either won’t be built or it will struggle to be maintained). Therefore it is important that we learn to increase the quantitative and qualitative value of a development. In Urban Design terms that means conducting a thorough analysis of data at the beginning of the project (but also throughout) in order to establish where the best development opportunities lie. This analysis is called the ‘Baseline’. As part of a Baseline we might analyse:
The Economic situation in the area (the supply and demand for new development, the type of development in demand, the price of residential/commercial space in the area, etc.) – This is important in determining how much and what type of development needs to take place on a site.
The Connectivity of the area (public transport links, road links, proximity to residential areas, proximity to retail areas, pedestrian and cycle links, proximity to the city centre, etc.) – This important in determining parking and transport provision but also who might see and visit the site.
The Demographics of the area (who the people are, what ethnicity and religious groups there are, what the age range of people is, what the average income is, etc.) – This is an important way of finding specific design opportunities to create appeal for particular groups of people in the surrounding area (such as ground floor residences for elderly people).
The Temporal situation (what new groups are moving in to an area, what groups are moving away, the trend in the economic situation, etc.) – Often developments fail because they are built for the current economic climate without being adaptable enough to suit changing trends in demand.
Below are a few examples from our project’s Baseline analysis:
Figure 1: Car Traffic Analysis (Central Newcastle)
Figure 2: Pedestrian Accessibility Analysis (Central Newcastle)
Figure 3: Demographic, Socio-Economic Analysis (West End of Newcastle)
Figure 4: Demographic, Religion Analysis (West End of Newcastle)
I hope this blog has given you a basic understanding of why and how we look at economics as part of Urban Design. I greatly enjoyed this topic, having seen first hand in architectural practice, the importance of economics and monetary value in determining whether or not a development goes ahead. So often do fabulous ideas get left behind during the early stages of design due to a lack of research, analysis and understanding of the economic implications and often the issue might be an opportunity rather than a threat.
Vandell, K and Lane, J – The Economics of Architecture and Urban Design: Some Preliminary Findings – Real Estate Economics, Vol. 17 (1989)
Design Council – The Value of Good Design – (2002) https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/resources/report/value-good-design
Oswell, A – Economics and Effective Urban Design – Lecture Presentation, (2017)