Skip to content
Header banner full
Header banner

Who actually  designs our urban environment?


After attending a recent lecture “Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition” by Mark Massey from IDPartnership, it forced me to begin to wonder, who actually designs our urban environment?

Particularly with regards to housing developments, I’m interested in deciphering where the voice and the power comes from in order to create a prominent element of our urban environment.

From politician to professional to public

In order to understand who dictates our urban environment, we must dissect each of the three key perspectives to get to grips with what they do or do not contribute.

Firstly, the Government. Year upon year the government promise to build a huge number of new affordable houses in England. The number they regurgitate is generally 300,000 new homes, [1] but in reality, at the very best only around 215,000 – 220,000 (not necessarily affordable) new houses[2] are provided and they are from independent developers, not from government funding.

Figure 1: Google Search Engine results for ‘tories housing’

From the top, politicians aren’t achieving what they have committed to. Philip Hammond, former chancellor of the exchequer stated that they would use the “powers of state to get the missing homes built”.[3] But as successive Conservative governments have failed to provide any of the 200,000 starter homes they committed to build in 2015, by 2020,[4] can we really believe that they are doing ‘everything in their power’?

With the impending doom of the results from the recent UK general election, is hindsight a forecast of what the Conservative government have to offer us for the next 4-5 years?

Next up; the design professionals.

Ralph Erskine, designer of Byker Wall in Newcastle, UK, was one of the first Architects in the UK to pioneer engagement with end users. While most architects at the time were middle to upper class,[5] they had little to no understanding of what the needs of the many were. That’s one of the reasons why Ralph Erskine was seen as revolutionary in his approach during the 1970’s and a social engineer. While some may think of it as an eye-sore, the community it was designed for feel a strong affinity to it as they felt they were finally being heard and belonged. Byker was very advanced in its thinking, even if it is aesthetically outdated now.

Figure 2: Ralph Erskine’s office in Byker. He worked here during the development of Byker Wall Estate to make it more convenient for the community to engage with the design process.

It’s easily arguable that the main difference between the Byker Wall Estate case study and most other housing developments was the fact that it was designed for an existing community;[6] not to simply manifest new ones, or more accurately, profit.

Does this consideration play a major role in the success of a housing development?

The boundaries between professional and public in this case study are almost blurred, and it could be argued that the two voices are almost tantamount to one another.

And lastly, the public.

As discussed Byker Wall Estate was designed for an existing community. But what other factors must we consider?
The housing concept outlines various aspects which contribute to a ‘liveable’ urban environment; such as community, landscape and play, pedestrian primacy, connectivity, innovative and varied house types and contemporary appearance.[7]

It was strongly required by the residents of Byker to be involved in the planning process, but it is naive of us to assume that it will always be the same community exclusively. People will move in and move out, pass away and be born into. Many theories on how to make more liveable cities and environments were developed during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s by the likes of Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl and William Whyte. But the reality is that communities constantly change, adapt and grow; so how much of an impact should the end user’s opinions have on the design when they may not be the ones to occupy it in a few years’ time? Byker is the perfect example, as an estate designed specifically for the existing community, “fewer than 20% of them were living in the new Byker in 1976.” [8]

Figure 3: Example of the Byker Wall Estate community in 2015

So, how do you design a housing development for a constantly changing community to keep up to date with users’ needs?

Top-down or bottom-up?

With Ministers wanting to “speed up developments”[9] – is this the way to proceed? What we will have is a repeat of post war housing where they are constructed for speed but will not necessarily last the test of time and are very unlikely to comply with modern design principles to successfully contribute to the regeneration the urban environment.

I suppose, ultimately, every member of society from politicians to the public should have the opportunity to engage with their surroundings and the place they call home.

It is very democratic to account for everyone but is the only way the urban environment can improve, realistically, to listen to the ‘experts’?


If you want to read more into Byker Wall Estate, check out Charlotte’s post here


[1] HM Treasury, “Housing: 2018 Budget Brief” (HM Treasury, October 29, 2018), [Accessed: 15th November 2019]

[2] Mark Massey, “Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition” (November 14, 2019).

[3] BBC, “Budget 2017: Plans to Build 300,000 New Homes a Year,” BBC News, November 19, 2017, [Accessed: 15th November 2019]

[4] Rajeev Syal, “Tories Fail to Build Any of 200,000 Starter Homes Promised in 2015, Says Watchdog,” The Guardian, November 5, 2019, UK edition, sec. Housing, [Accessed: 15th November 2019]

[5] Massey, “Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition.”

[6] Anna Minton, “Byker Wall: Newcastle’s Noble Failure of an Estate – a History of Cities in 50 Buildings, Day 41,” The Guardian, May 21, 2015, [Accessed: 7th January 2020]

[7] Massey, “Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition.”

[8] Minton, “Byker Wall: Newcastle’s Noble Failure of an Estate – a History of Cities in 50 Buildings, Day 41.” [Accessed: 7th January 2020]

[9] BBC, “Budget 2017: Plans to Build 300,000 New Homes a Year.” [Accessed: 15th November 2019]

Image References:

Figure 1: Google Search Engine results for ‘tories housing’

Figure 2: Ralph Erskine’s office in Byker. He worked here during the development of Byker Wall Estate to make it more convenient for the community to engage with the design process,, Farrell, S.

Figure 3: Example of the Byker Wall Estate community in 2015,, Hilditch, M.

4 responses to “Improved Urban Form: A Collective Goal?”

  1. Lucy has tapped into a very topical subject which I’m going to take a further look at. I think the issue of Top down v Bottom up is still very applicable in Byker wall’s recent developments. The last 10 years in particular, have been a great example of how top-down dry policy can actually take or give life to a scheme, particularly when examined from the perspective of two key urban theorists.

    The first Urban theorist is the collective; Urban Task force. This collective was formed by Lord Rogers under the supervision of John Prescott, with the aim of over-hauling the standardised approach to housing whilst increasing the number of homes delivered (2002). Their approach was very much top down and heavily reliant on policy and the role of the designer (2002). When designing for the public sector, they treated the public as objects to be controlled rather than a valuable source of input. The task force had good intentions, but the lack of engagement with the subjects of their proposals meant that not much has changed 18 years on.

    This policy driven, top-down approach relates to the years of decline for Byker wall. As a precursor to the Byker Community Trust, Byker wall used to be under the control of Newcastle City Council. This was the era in which Byker gained its bad reputation, partially due to bad management but also due to the council’s hands being tied by government funding policy (Evening Chronicle, 2013).

    Theorists such as Margaret Crawford, however suggest a more realistic approach which relates to the success of Byker wall in recent years. Her work does carry some anti-government sentiments and therefore leans more towards the bottom up approach with a mix of top down. She acknowledges that our current society is ‘fragmented’ (1999) and therefore proposes the solutions can come in the form of ‘micro’(1999) insertions to the everyday things. It’s interesting that Lucy picks up on the issue of submitting ourselves to the ‘experts’(1999) given Margaret Crawford goes as far as to say we the people are all ‘experts’, given we have our own unique set of knowledge about the everyday urban areas which relate to our lives.

    Byker Wall separated itself from the Top-down control of the council in 2013 through the formation of the Byker community Trust (as mentioned by Ameeta). This was the consequence of a bottom-up vote and the resultant BCT was a clear acknowledgement of the resident ‘experts’ of Byker, valuing their input into the ‘everyday’ restoration of the wall (BCT, 2019). This bold move had major practical implications, given the Trust was entitled to loans, donations etc. which the council were not entitled to, and the unusual move from the council to write off the £40 million debt allowed the trust to start afresh (Evening Chronicle, 2013).

    This primarily bottom-up solution with the support of top down aid, did rejuvenate Byker Wall and bring a new lease of life. However with each case, a unique solution is required given, for example, such funding opportunities and always open to bottom up efforts.


    Byker Community Trust., (2019). About us [online]. BCT [viewed 15 January 2020] Available from:

    Crawford, M., (1999) The current state of everyday Urbanism. The Urban design Reader,2. Pp.139-146

    Evening Chronicle (2013) Byker wall to get multi million pound makeover [online] The Chronicle [viewed 15 January 2020] Available from:

    Graham, H., (2017) Life on the Byker wall Estate [online] The Chronicle [viewed 15 January 2020] Available from:

    Minton, A., (2015) Byker wall: Newcastle’s noble failure [online]. Theguardian [viewed 15 January 2020] Available from:

    Muncaster, M., (2018) The inside story pf how Newcastle’s Byker wall has changed [online] The Chronicle [viewed 15 January 2020] Available from:

    Rogers, R., (2002) Towards an Urban Renaissance. Urban Task force, pp. 48-85

    Stickings, T., (2017) Byker wall Estate named as the best neighbourhood in the UK [online] The Chronicle [viewed 15 January 2020] Available from:

  2. Thank you and well done for bringing up such an interesting and topical discussion Lucy! Drawing light to the collective accountability of politicians, designers and the public towards the social realm is essential.

    You highlight the Byker estate as a case study for community-led developments, and it certainly has had questionable results. It brings to mind how I was once told ‘you would ask a doctor to heal you if you were sick, so surely you would ask an architect to heal the built environment’. Perhaps developing socially conscious projects needs a rethink.

    As an alternative, more recent case study for housing developments, I would like to highlight Goldsmith Street, recently awarded the Stirling Prize [1].

    Norwich South, Goldsmith Street’s constituency, has predominantly been a Labour stronghold [2]. This political stability allowed the local council to implement specific housing policies, allocate specific sites for development and create a development plan for the area [3].

    Goldsmith Street was highlighted as an area for redevelopment as a brownfield site in Norwich [4]. Following a design competition, architects Mikhail Riches proposal was chosen as a high-quality design that has created an affordable and environmentally-friendly council estate. It pays homage to Norwich’s Golden Triangle as design inspiration, and has specifically created an intimate streetscape with cycling and pedestrian infrastructure [5].

    From this example, we can see that a determined, socially conscious council doesn’t need to create masses of apartment blocks to house low-income families. If architects are conscious of the requirements for council estates, they too can generate high-quality proposals that can gain international recognition. It is hoped that more follow in Mikhail Riches footsteps.

    Maybe then Goldsmith Street can pave the way for a new future of social housing. Having highlighted how politicians and the design profession can lay the foundations for a positive social realm, it is here where public take over the duty towards the social realm.

    However, the Right-To-Buy scheme means that in three years, the Goldsmith Street tenants will be able to buy their homes outright from the council at a relatively low cost [6]. The temptation will then surely arise to sell on these homes to private developers. Indeed a recent poll suggested that “40% of all homes originally purchased on the Right-To-Buy scheme are now in the hands of private landlords” [7].

    I would suggest we can do little to influence decisions to sell these properties on. Who are we to deny a low-income family the chance to reap financial benefits? Instead, maybe we can be active in educating home-owners on how financially driven decisions can have long-term consequences for social geography in the built environment. It will certainly be interesting to look at Goldsmith Street in ten years or so, to see how this new look council estate has fared.



    [1] Kafka, G. (2019, September 26). RIBA Stirling Prize 2019: Goldsmith Street by Mikhail
    Riches with Cathy Hawley. Retrieved from Architect’s Journal:

    [2]Baxter, M. (2020, January 07). Norwich South: Seat, Ward and Prediction Details.
    Retrieved from Electoral Calculus:

    [3]Norwich City Council. (2014). Norwich Site Allocations and Site Specific Policies Local
    Plan. Norwich: Norwich City Council.

    [4] Ibid

    [5] (Kafka, 2019)

    [6] Foster, D. (2015, December 7). Right to buy: a history of Margaret Thatcher’s
    controversial policy. The Guardian.

    [7]Kentish, B. (2017, December 8). Forty percent of homes sold under Right to Buy now
    in the hands of private landlords, new analysis reveals. Independent.

  3. Thank you, Lucy, for raising this insightful issue on the involvement of the different hierarchical bodies that dictate our urban environment such as housing development. I particularly found this blog engaging because it made me think about the systems of democratizing development. Whether, the socio-political role of ‘liveable’ urban environment can support the advocacies in UK.
    As you mentioned, Byker Wall Estate was designed for an existing community. It would be interesting to question, “if the neighbourhood can be its own developer for housing?”[1] I agree, it is difficult to achieve a housing scheme which lacks in promoting political support and economic resources.
    However, in response to the changing community living in Byker and to your point of other factors to contribute to a ‘liveable’ housing scheme. BCT announced for the revitalisation of Byker wall in 2013 (Byker: A way forward, 2018). A bottom up approach looked into participation of people of Byker to vote on how the estates should be managed and owned (Byker: A way forward, 2018). In return, Jill Haley, chief executive of the BCT, promised to not only improve physical requirements but also promote well-being programmes for the people cohabiting in Byker (Byker: A way forward, 2018). To what extent does this improve the relationship of the economic and social conditions of the estate?
    In the contrary, “21st century affordable housing is extinct in achieving a valuable social and political achievement”[2] . For this reason, council houses are far known to be valuable than estate housing. However, Erskine’s design theories of community led concept was less successful because the social project failed to retain the community due to the estate partially threatened of demolition. There is a real irony here to note of the way “Byker was rebuilt to save the community and now the building form that is listed for preservation, despite the original plan to save the community”[3] . Hence there is a notable misguide of social housing today in the assumption of preserving a community. On the other hand, “Byker residents were not accustomed to living with nature”[4] . As a result, the site was less appealing and the landscape felt unsafe amongst the residents and many other factors.
    Overall, in order to cherish the indefinite future of housing as a form of heritage, we must prioritize the flexibility and the utility of the urban environment we live in. There is still the degree to which we can reconcile and protect existing neighbourhood to value their changing needs and preferences of their homes.


    [1] El-Khoury, R. and Robbins, E. (2013). Shaping the city. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

    [2] [3] PENDLEBURY, J. (2016). VALUING HISTORIC ENVIRONMENTS. [Place of publication not identified]: ROUTLEDGE, p.212.

    [4] Abrams, R. (2020). Byker Revisited in Built Environment. 29th ed. [ebook] Alexandrine Press, pp.6 -15. Available at: [Accessed 11 Jan. 2020].

Leave a Reply

School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 208 6509


Hit Counter provided by recruiting services