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A short history of the CABE urban design summer school

The CABE urban design summer school was an annual, intensive residential learning programme aimed at the wide range of professionals and decision-makers involved in making and sustaining successful places.

Photo by Peter Atkinson Photography

Since its launch in 2004, a total of 775 delegates have attended a CABE urban design summer school.

The school has been held in six different locations (in 2010 the school returned to Birmingham) across five of the nine English regions. At the heart of each summer school is a practical urban design project on which delegates work in multi-disciplinary teams. This project is in many ways the dynamo for learning at the summer school, providing grounding for the lessons and pointers from keynote speakers, workshops and toolkit sessions as well as catalysing discussion about the opportunities and challenges of multi-disciplinary team working.

By moving around the country the summer school has not only been able to attract delegates for whom travel would otherwise have been a problem but also to find new, locally specific challenges to explore through the design projects.

Why was it developed?

Towards an Urban Renaissance: the final report of the Urban Task Force (Rogers 1999), identified the importance of investing in the urban development skills of both public and private sectors. Picking up on this message, the Report of the Urban Design Skills Working Group, coordinated by a newly established CABE on behalf of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, recommended that its members ‘work together to promote events such as inter-professional seminars or conferences and an Urban Design Spring School, and to develop relevant self-learning toolkits and online modules’ (CABE 2001, Recommendation 14).

In 2003 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published the Sustainable Communities Plan: Building for the future (ODPM 2003). It once again emphasised the importance of investing in urban development skills and identified a role for CABE in providing leadership (Paragraph 1.26).

In response CABE published Building Sustainable Communities: Developing the skills we need (CABE 2003) setting out how CABE perceived and would approach the skills challenges. In particular it included the action to ‘Create a trained network of project leaders and deliverers’; to ensure the existence of an ‘on the ground’ network of ‘at least 1000 professionals who are capable of leading Sustainable Communities projects’ (CABE 2003). These would be urban ‘specialist-generalists’ who would work across professions and focus on place making. The school would serve as a propagator of such talent and would, as a taster, encourage uptake of postgraduate courses in urban design.

Who is it for?

The CABE urban design summer school actively draws together professionals and practitioners from across the built environment sector. It is relevant for anyone whose work involves the design, development and maintenance of buildings and spaces. Past summer schools have brought together built environment professionals from public and private sector, registered social landlords, public artist specialists, staff from local and regional government, local politicians, property professionals and community activists.

How does it work?

In the summer of 2003 CABE invited tenders from organisations able and willing to partner with CABE in developing a ‘3 - 5 day school with long working days’, ‘for a minimum of 50 and a maximum of 250 participants’, ‘a high level of professional facilitation’ and ‘a working and residential environment that reflects the make-up of the likely participants and learning providers’.

CABE was very clear in its original tender about the sort of school it envisaged, stating that:

  • the school would need to be structured in such a way that clients, decision-makers and professionals from a variety of disciplines could work and learn together. Some of the participants would have particular strengths in policy knowledge and applications. Others would have strong drawing skills. The course would need to be structured to utilise combinations of skills to facilitate mutual learning
  • what we have in mind is a form of extended masterclass that would give participants access to high level practitioners and speakers from home and abroad and which would allow them to participate in cross-disciplinary charrettes on real project scenarios
  • we do not anticipate speeches by civil servants or policy makers or advisors except to the extent that this would facilitate better practice. In this sense, it is not at all a ‘conference’, it is a ‘school of advanced learning’.

The University of Westminster was appointed to work with CABE to develop and deliver the first CABE urban design summer school, held in Ashford, Kent, in June 2004. The success of this first summer school led to the extension of CABE’s contract with the University of Westminster to cover two further summer schools in East Lancashire in June 2005 and Plymouth in 2006.

This was a highly productive partnership and by the end of first three years CABE and the University of Westminster had together developed the summer school as a new vehicle for urban design learning as well as established its position in the market. The school had also grown from 71 delegates in 2004 to 103 in 2006.

Nevertheless, according to best value guidelines, after three years CABE began preparations to re-tender the summer school. Whilst the school was proving highly successful and the partnership was working well, this was also an opportunity to take stock and look afresh at the programme for areas where it could be further developed to ensure continued success into the future. Specifically, the second round of tenders invited potential partners to consider strategies for enhanced pre and post event learning using, where appropriate, new and emerging technologies as well as propose new ideas and approaches in responding to the growing spread of knowledge and skills amongst those attending.

From a strong field, the contract to partner CABE for deliver of a second series of urban design summer schools was awarded to a new consortium led by the Birmingham City University. Other members of the consortium were R99 Ltd, Gaia Group and Urban Design Skills.

Whilst respecting the strengths of the delivery model developed during the first three years, the new consortium introduced and integrated a number of innovations into the delivery of the programme, broadened recruitment and explored new ways of engaging with delegates before, and after, the summer school. The new consortium also increased numbers to 123 in 2007, and then to over 130 in 2008 and 2009, and actively sought sponsorship for both bursaries and parts of the programme.

At the end of 2009 the issue of re-tendering was once more raised. Unable at the time to commit to a further-three year contract, CABE felt it would not serve best value to tender for a single year. Faced with the strong possibility that CABE would opt for a ‘fallow’ year whilst decisions about a longer-term future for the summer school were considered, the consortium that had delivered the summer school between 2007 and 2009, this time led by MADE, offered to organise and deliver a further year of the summer school, at no risk to CABE, on the proviso that they were able to continue to use its identity and draw on CABE’s expertise in its development. This was an unexpected, yet welcome, initiative and one that CABE was keen to support. The summer school went ahead, in July 2010, and despite the challenging economic climate was again a great success.

Close working between CABE and the two delivery partners (University of Westminster in the first three years and the current consortium, led by Birmingham City University for three years and MADE for the last year) has been critical in both ensuring quality and managing risk. As the lion’s share of the programme budget is reliant upon fee income from bookings, a major source of risk and therefore focus for collaboration between CABE and the delivery partner has been marketing. Each year a proportion of the budget has been used to update and refresh marketing materials and pay for direct mailings. Over time this has moved away from postal mailings towards electronic channels.

A steering group was convened by CABE to oversee development of the summer schools 2004 – 2009, ensuring good governance and offering expert advice where appropriate. The 2010 programme was developed and delivered by MADE (as representative of the wider consortium) under licence to CABE. A steering group was not convened by CABE, although the agreement between CABE and MADE provided for regular updates and referral for key decisions.

To get an idea of how the two delivery teams responded to the brief, it is worth looking at the pages for the individual schools: 2004 – 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

When and where has it been held?

There have now been seven CABE urban design summer schools:

  • 13 – 16 June 2004, Ashford, Kent (in partnership with University of Westminster)
    71 delegates, 100% satisfied or very satisfied
  • 26 – 29 June 2005, Pennine Lancashire (in partnership with University of Westminster)
    100 delegates, 85% satisfied or very satisfied
  • 25 – 28 June 2006, Plymouth (in partnership with University of Westminster)
    103 delegates, 90.4% satisfied or very satisfied
  • 24 – 27 June 2007, Birmingham (in partnership with a consortium led by Birmingham City University with R99 Ltd, Gaia Group and Urban Design Skills)
    123 delegates, 90% rated the school as good or very good
  • 22 – 25 June 2008, Newcastle (in partnership with a consortium led by Birmingham City University with R99 Ltd, Gaia Group and Urban Design Skills)
    136 delegates, 96% rated the school as good or very good
  • 22 – 25 June 2009, Bristol (in partnership with a consortium led by Birmingham City University with R99 Ltd, Gaia Group and Urban Design Skills)
    131 delegates, 94% rated school as good or very good
  • 11 – 14 July 2010, Birmingham (licensed to a consortium led by MADE with Birmingham City University, R99 Ltd, Gaia Group and Urban Design Skills)
    111 delegates, 97% rated school as good or very good

How much does it cost?

The intention from the outset was that the major proportion of programme costs should be covered from fee income. In 2004 the standard fee was £750 rising to £1095 in 2009. This fee was held for the 2010 programme as well.

Nevertheless, from the start CABE contributed to core delivery costs in order to create space in the budget for the appointed delivery partner to innovate in responding to the brief. CABE also supported development and delivery in a variety of other ways: direct marketing materials and messages, attracting and providing speakers, facilitating workshops and being part of the coordination team during the event. Although difficult to quantify, it is also worth acknowledging the value of the CABE brand.

In 2010 the summer school was delivered by the existing consortium led by MADE, the architecture and built environment centre based in Birmingham, without core subsidy from CABE. The consortium continued to use the CABE brand, under licence, to promote the school but by returning to Birmingham, drawing on their local knowledge of sites for design work, promoting the school to sponsors and carefully structuring the budget were able to deliver the school without CABE funding towards core delivery costs. In the event CABE did provide some funding, but in the form of sponsorship for targeted bursaries and to enable CABE staff to attend for their own development. Nevertheless, this was a welcome and timely initiative by MADE and partners, proving as it did that there could be a future for the summer school.

Where next?

The success of the 2010 programme, albeit on a slightly smaller scale than in some of the previous years, at a time when many training budgets were under extreme pressure suggests that there is still a demand for this sort of programme. At the time of writing this note MADE are intending to run an international urban design summer school in June 2011.  Details will be available at www.made.org.uk.

Where to look for more information

For more information about the CABE urban design summer school, including outline programmes and copies of some of the presentations, turn to the pages for the individual years: 2004 – 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.