Do sustainability measures constrain urban design creativity?

ICE

The new paper, ‘Do sustainability measures constrain urban design creativity?’ was published in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Urban Design and Planning, Volume 168 Issue 1, February 2015, pp. 30-41.  Themed issue on the art of urban design – part one.  Authors: , MSc, , , PhD, , , OBE, PhD, , , BArch, , , OBE, Dip Arch, , and , PhD.
Abstract
Planners, architects, urban designers and other built environment professionals engage with a myriad of checkboxes, guidelines, requirements and specifications, all of which potentially compromise creativity and innovation in urban design. Approaches that measure performance are accused of belying the nature of places as messy, plural, organic, accidental and emotive; trying to find a formula that works may tick boxes, but it risks creating soulless spaces, oppressing innovation and incorporation of inappropriate design elements. This paper argues that sustainability assessment methods do have something to contribute to creativity and innovation in urban design precisely because they encourage engagement with challenging and often complex societal priorities. Through interviews with built environment professionals and a critical examination of sustainability assessment methods, the authors suggest that such methods can promote creativity and innovation if they engage competently with sustainability, work at a scale that allows for both breadth and depth (typically greater than the building scale) and incorporate in their design a set of eight key characteristics designed to promote creativity and innovation.
Methodology
The authors conducted a series of interviews with UK built environment professionals: two architects, two design and engineering consultants, four sustainable development consultants and one urban designer. This group was selected because, ‘urban design is informed by a breadth of professions, rather than solely by urban designers.’
The outcomes of these  interviews indicated which sustainability assessment methods were examined, as well as which relevant characteristics to investigate. The interviews addressed barriers to creativity and innovation in relation to addressing dimensions of sustainability.
Defining urban design
Two themes emerge from these ideas and from within the urban design literature, both of which were supported by the interviews. Firstly, urban design is an art, ‘The ‘design’ part of urban design suggests a link with the arts and humanities (Biddulph, 2012), especially the notions of creativity and innovation, which stem from synthesis and imagination.’ All the interviewees acknowledged the limitations that working in urban design place upon designers. It was by interviewee suggested that compliance is perceived to be more important in the current linear UK planning system, causing innovation to be stifled.
The second theme is that urban design is a process, ‘Process is the framework, rules and guidelines that allow for the ‘orchestration of the city’s physical parts’ (Frey, 1999, p. 16).’  All the interviewees acknowledged that following an urban design process ensures more desirable outcomes which should result in a more transparency in the  decision process.  This should also allow creativity to be part of the process and acknowledges the political context under which decisions are made (Biddulph, 2012). The challenge is to undertake a process that allows creativity and innovation.

Characteristics that promote creativity and innovation

The paper discusses urban design and sustainability assessment methods plus characteristics that promote creativity and innovation. Eight key characteristics that promote creativity and innovation in urban design were identified:

  • risk-taking in idea generation

  • visionary leadership

  • team understanding and commitment

  • clear, and ideally visionary, brief and strategy

  • access to relevant information and appropriate and sufficient resources

  • ownership of ideas

  • good communication skills, including visualisation and diplomatic skills

  • working well with stakeholders outside the design team

Conclusions

The interviews with UK built environment professionals on the relationship between sustainability assessment methods and creativity and innovation in urban design confirm many of the core findings within urban sustainability research. The authors have established that sustainability assessment methods do impact creativity and innovation in urban design, and that many current methods are described more negatively than positively in terms of their impact upon creativity and innovation.

There also was broad recognition of the value that sustainability assessment methods have in elucidating sustainability issues and in providing guidance on how they might be addressed. This, in turn, provides a platform from which urban designers can be creative and innovative, both at specific points in the urban design process and throughout the process. Based on the above findings, the authors propose the following principle: a sustainability assessment method will promote creativity and innovation in urban design if it engages competently with sustainability, works at a scale that allows for breadth and depth (typically greater than the building scale), and incorporates a set of eight key characteristics designed to promote creativity and innovation. This principle should guide any new sustainability assessment methods under development.

The findings also suggest that the people creating sustainability assessment methods should think more broadly about those who will use their methods and for what purpose(s). At the moment, many methods appear to be designed to work within a more deterministic, normative, empirical and scientific framework. They either fail to understand or ignore the creative and innovative aspects of urban design and the designers who use them (and who work in a more ‘designerly’ way) (Cross, 1982). Perhaps, when sustainability is more embedded in society, sustainability assessment will naturally encourage creative processes as well as creative and sustainable design solutions.

To download the full text click here 

Cite this paper as: Leach JM, Boyko CT, Cooper RFD, Woodeson A, Eyre J, Rogers CDF (2014). Do sustainability measures constrain urban design creativity? Proceedings of the ICE: Urban Design and Planning. 168(1):30-41. DOI: 10.1680/udap.13.00034
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