ITC considers how we can promote good design of our transport infrastructure
How can we promote good design of our transport infrastructure?
Good design of transport infrastructure brings a wide range of benefits. As many Victorian engineers understood, drawing from a set of good design principles results in infrastructure that is cherished in its immediate environment and a pleasure to use and see. However, recent decades have seen too much transport infrastructure built in the UK that is visually crude, banal and uninspiring. The importance of good design is now recognised by Highways England and High Speed 2, both of which have recently established design panels to inform their schemes. Will these bodies have the desired effect, and can we promote good design more widely when updating or extending our roads, rail network and airports?
To debate this important policy issue the ITC was delighted to welcome Transport Minister The Rt Hon John Hayes CBE MP as well as a distinguished panel of senior experts from the road, rail and aviation sectors to a Discussion Evening on 31st October 2016. Introduced by ITC Trustee and host Alan Baxter CBE, over 70 senior guests attended and the subject was introduced through talks from a panel comprising: Jolyon Brewis, Partner at Grimshaw Architects; Mike Wilson, Chief Highways Engineer at Highways England; and Dr William Filmer-Sankey, a Director at Alan Baxter Limited.
Good design in transport – key issues raised by speakers:
- Jolyon Brewis provided an overview of good design at airports. He explained that designers had to start from the basis that transport was for humans and should reflect our practical needs. Airports, he noted, have frequently needed to change and expand, and some mega-airports now resembled an extension of the city rather than a single building. As a result, good design should allow for adaptability, understanding that an airport was a built organism rather than a fossil, which pointed towards a modular approach in planning. The most successful airports, he observed, connected functionality with human needs. Good design principles therefore took into account issues such as the need for light, the need to temper the local climate and to reflect local character. As a result there was no single design template to building airports, he explained, and good design would result in different responses across the world’s cities.
- Mike Wilson discussed the approach that Highways England was taking to good design of our strategic road network. He observed that the design challenges for Highways England were various due to the wide variation in location and type of road that it oversees. The issues road designers faced, he added, included noise, verges, safety and air quality as well as aesthetical issues. Highways England was now assisted by a Design Panel providing guidance on road design. The key objective was to marry form and function which was aided by properly understanding each road scheme’s purpose, likely users, and neighbourhood. Excellent road design involves protecting a sense of place and being sympathetic to local build environment characteristics, including materials and features. A fine example of a successful scheme, he suggested, was the A3 Hindhead Tunnel which respected the local environment and engaged the local community. To conclude, he observed that good road design need not involve higher costs, particularly if key principles were imparted at an early stage in the process.
- William Filmer-Sankey provided a perspective on how to achieve good design of railways. He began by pointing out that achieving good design was an industry-wide challenge and did not fall at the door of a single organisation. The prime purpose of a railway, he explained, was to carry humans; Victorian engineers recognised the value in building striking and visually attractive infrastructure that created a sense of pride in the railways. He noted that although some recent major station redesigns had been successful, the record was very patchy elsewhere, and electrification was now generating huge challenges due to the need for regular gantries to hold the wires. Solutions needed to be visually attractive and reflect the existing built heritage. To achieve this a better procurement structure was required in Network Rail so that contractors are obliged to follow good design principles, and these needed to be established at the outset of a project. He suggested that a Design Panel would be helpful, but it would need to have sufficient powers and be supported by the engineering community.
The Minister for Transport, The Rt Hon John Hayes CBE MP, spoke to the audience on ‘The Journey to Beauty’ expressing his perspectives on how to improve good design in transport infrastructure. He challenged the ‘cult of ugliness’ in public architecture and called for engineers and designers to serve the people by providing high quality transport design. Pointing to examples of successful projects, he noted how Design Panels could help encourage more beautiful infrastructure. As a statement of intent, he promised that the Euston Arch would be resurrected. For a full version of the Minister’s speech please visit: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-journey-to-beauty
Key themes raised in the discussion:
- We need to take account of good design when appraising transport infrastructure. Delegates observed that the existing planning framework often failed to support good infrastructure design. Part of the problem, it was noted, was that the business case often ignored the value of good design because conventional appraisal methods were not taking account of human values such as the wellbeing that could be generated by attractive and impressive infrastructure design. Such issues need to be incorporated into the appraisal process in order to provide a more holistic assessment of a scheme’s worth, rather than being limited to merely those variables that can be reduced to a set of econometric figures. The value of retaining transport buildings of heritage rather than demolishing them also needed to be taken into account by infrastructure owners. In this way, some guests noted, it would be possible to demonstrate that well designed infrastructure did not necessarily need to cost more.
- Better design of our infrastructure could be assisted by a National Spatial Plan. Several delegates pointed to the benefits that could arise from developing a coherent National Spatial Plan that included transport. Through this scheme, some suggested that it should be possible to promote harmonious and sympathetic infrastructure designs that better fitted the needs and characteristics of cities and regions. An example was offered of the way in which the London Plan was helping to provide guidance and a strong framework for planning and designing transport infrastructure in the capital. Such a plan would also need to incorporate the understanding that infrastructure can change behaviour over the longer term
- Good design ideas need to be installed at an early stage in procurement. A number of guests noted that good design ideas often emerged too late in the infrastructure building process, by which point it was very expensive to change direction. In addition, the details of design were often left to contractors who had no incentive to complete infrastructure projects in an aesthetically well-designed manner. Ways needed to be found, it was argued, of building in good design principles at a much earlier stage in the procurement process, in order that these were agreed and followed from the outset of a project.
- Design Panels can make a difference, but only if they are given sufficient authority. The concept of design panels was widely welcomed by guests as a means of encouraging good infrastructure design. Many believed that Design Panels could help the UK’s infrastructure bodies to become more demanding clients, as well as providing a source of expert advice. However, delegates suggested that these Panels would only be effective if they were invested with sufficient authority and oversight.