Masterplans explained

Masterplans are strategies for physical, economic and social change. They are not blueprints for development but show how places can work for the better in the future and what needs to be coordinated and controlled to achieve this over time.

Compared with designing a single building, planning and delivering change for larger areas requires a different kind of thinking. You need to consider diverse elements such as public space, streets, infrastructure, public buildings, places of employment and houses. You need to understand how they relate to one another in space and how they may become more or less viable and desirable over time. This includes adapting places to known and projected implications of climate change, and ensuring that new places are designed with the flexibility that allows them to deal with different climatic events.

Planners and designers often handle this kind of complexity by using a masterplan. This is not so much about what goes where but about what kind of place will be created and how people will inhabit and use it over time. It has to ensure that different developments and improvements add up to more than the sum of their parts and that the good things a place already has can be retained and enhanced.

The conventional definition of spatial masterplans is that they "set out proposals for buildings, spaces, movement strategy and land use in three dimensions and match these proposals to a delivery strategy". This means a drawn plan, supported by financial, economic and social policy documents and detail about how the plan will be delivered.

They can cover a wide range of spatial scales and timescales: from city-scale masterplans implemented over decades to groups of buildings across a single development site. They focus on important relationships and principles across those scales and tend to leave the detail about individual buildings and spaces to those who will design them at some later stage.

They balance control with flexibility, allowing for a combination of instruction (what must happen) and guidance (what should happen). They can help to integrate different themes and motives – political, economic, environmental, social, cultural – and help to deal with multiple parties having an interest in the future of a place over time.

The masterplanner will set down the fundamental principles for a place, but they shouldn’t be the architects for the whole lot.
Alan Baxter, Alan Baxter and Associates

Since no one can predict or control the future, masterplanning is about focusing on what we can be more certain about, what will last the longest and what will contribute most to the overall quality of a place. Land use and ownership, while they will seem important to individual people at a point in time, are the least enduring elements of place. They change regularly over time. In contrast, towns and cities can last for thousands of years, neighbourhoods and streets for many hundreds.

The most important physical things to get right over the long term are those that last the longest and are most difficult to change later on: streets, railways and footpaths; parks and gardens; water, drainage, energy and waste systems. Some other less tangible elements also have a big impact on how a place feels to be in and need to be the subject of masterplanning: the relationship between public and private spaces; how those spaces are managed; how easy it is to find your way around; and, overall, what kind of character a place has.