Supporter's Column: Darryl Chen

A reflection on how creativity in urban design can be used to address the climate emergency, technological advances and social change.

Urban design as a creative act


Last December urban design made front page news. Michael Gove said we need more of it and Policy Exchange said we need to skill up on it. Whatever it is, urban design is being used as an entry point to advocate, quite rightly, for the creation of better public spaces, streets, and neighbourhoods. But read the fine print and you’ll come across beauty, codification and timeless solutions; at which stage I begin to wonder whether ‘urban design’ is being commandeered to mean a particular kind of approach to the built environment; one that funnels all creative paths towards a singular ideal.  To be clear, I’m not against the historicity of the outcome perse, but the close-endedness of the process. It is this narrowness and overemphasis of a single version of what is ‘good’ that counters what I have learnt in my career. It risks keeping many potential practitioners away from urban design, which ironically is the opposite the ‘school of place’ plans to do.


I want to advocate an urban design practice that is forward-looking, expansive in its field of solutions, and inherently creative. Whilst much has been written lately about urban design and placemaking, there seems an astonishing lack of emphasis on the creative design skills that are required to propel an urban project forward. For instance, too often I’ve heard even my fellow practitioners say the blueprint for our neighbourhoods, towns and cities lies in a particular version of the past, as though there were an historic ideal form that held the key to our bright urban future if only we could deliver it. 


This is far from the case. Our times require not just historic knowledge, but imagination and in the end novel solutions - dare I say, new urban forms - to address newly ways of living, the climate emergency, technological advances, and social changes that are unique to now. And this is in the face of incumbent development models that have shifted slowly just as the rate of change around us has accelerated.


At the heart of the creative task is putting pen to paper, making an assertion that will mean something in three-dimensional space. The urban designer takes information embedded within the urban patterns of cities as well as the ideas of those that haven’t been realised, and adapts, recombines, evolves - sometimes, contrasting, inverting, and departing from - this ‘raw material’ to the present and near future demands of contemporary briefs. What could this mean? Innovative building types that introduce new ways to live and work collectively, hybrid architecture and landscapes for socialising, ecological repair, economic circularity or integrated networks of movement based on micro mobility. All of these have consequences for how an area might take shape in three dimensions.


The urban designer is not alone in tackling the challenges facing our urban environments but has considerable agency in offering proposals - both formal and processual - that address these at the urban scale. The practice is uniquely situated at the intersection of architecture and planning; drawing upon both, while carving out its own disciplinary praxis.


Instead of providing a robust definition of urban design, which has been attempted by many others, I want to highlight creativity as the element strangely missing from the debate about urban design and to challenge development models that are well past their expiry date. My heart races, mind stimulated, when I see design ingenuity manifest itself in urban form just as it can in single works of architecture. Creativity is an antidote to an increasingly retrograde attitude that is characterized by this government’s domination of the terms of engagement.


This article was written by Daryll Chen, Partner at Hawkins Brown.