Good design in a changing world

Richard Simmons
14 October 2010

Well-designed and maintained places have a positive impact on every person every day.

They foster civic pride and a sense of local and national identity. They enable us to live in a more sustainable way and improve our physical and mental health. They reduce opportunities for crime‚ and help deliver more efficient public services. They promote fairness and a sense of responsibility towards the community. They create the right environment to reverse social decline and generate wealth. And they save money by being cheaper to build and run and preventing the costs of bad design. 

Regardless of who pays for or profits from development, everyone wants to live, work and learn in buildings, places and spaces that inspire and lift the spirits, as well as being functional and fit for purpose.

So good design is in the public interest and it makes business sense. It also marks us out as a cultured, civilized and creative nation.

Good design in a changing world

Britain is dealing with the aftermath of one of the worst recessions of modern times. The need to cut the national deficit means that public funds to invest in new building and maintain and improve what already exists will be scarce. The market for private development has not yet recovered to pre-recession levels.

The coalition government wants to empower local communities to shape the look and feel of the places where they live.

The planning system will change to allow more local influence over plans and reduce top down direction. Communities will be given the right to build homes with minimal control from above. The NHS will devolve commissioning to GPs. There will be new ways of procuring schools, including those where parents take the lead. All this means that there will be many more inexperienced construction clients. Even experienced clients will have no experience of the new ways of working.

Big risks, but bigger rewards

Any big change brings risks and rewards. The risks for design quality are that the shortage of money may make it harder to get good technical advice; that reduced maintenance budgets may lead to a more degraded built environment, especially in poorer areas; that inexperienced people will not have the skills or knowledge to get good design; and that good design will slip below the radar as people try to manage lots of change at once.

The rewards can be considerable.

Buildings and places shaped by the people who will use them should be more valued and cared for. Parks and public spaces owned and managed by the community should be well looked after and used.

Professionals should be able to innovate, confident that their clients will get more efficient buildings, and places which are more sustainable, and cheaper to look after. Businesses should find regulation simplified, decisions made faster and with more local support.

How CABE can play its part

These benefits won’t just happen. They need to be enabled and supported with expertise tuned to the needs of those who have to make the new ways work. 

CABE itself is not immune from the changes:

  • We have never been a big organisation, given the scale of the task. We expect to be smaller and have less to spend.
  • We have always worked locally. We aim to be even more local in future.
  • We have always worked through networks of associates and partners. We plan to do so even more from now on.
  • We have always learnt from good practice on the ground and shared this with our clients. We will need to do the same for new audiences and new clients as the way development works is changed.

A creative opportunity

Changing who makes decisions about what to build and what it should be like could seem risky, creating uncertainty and requiring new ways of thinking and working.

For designers this is, in fact, an opportunity.

An opportunity to prove the virtues of good design. To contribute to wealth creation as the country gets back on its feet. To listen to people and put them at the heart of their designs. To rediscover the virtues of efficient, low cost design. To get better value for the taxpayer and create greater value for the community and for business.

Good design is inseparable from good quality of life. It is efficient, affordable, sustainable, inclusive and beautiful. It lifts the heart and inspires the mind. We need it now more than ever.

Richard Simmons is the chief executive of CABE.


Your comments

Graeme Moore on

God help the built environment if CABE disappears, that's all I can say.

mark simmons on

God wants the built environment to be better for all people... I'm not sure if current spending strategies do though. The ramifications on many other social problems, by leaving the built and public environments on the shelf, will be huge.

Margaret brennan on

Thankyou so much to CABE for all the positive help and influence. Through the years. Fantastic organisation. I always refer to your website for examples. Working and living in Ireland, we have been hugely influenced by your work. Hope you manage with the reduced funds. We have a worse case scenario here at the moment!!