TransForm Places

Why triangular spaces are deeply cool

November 5, 2012adminOpinion

No, this isn’t some sort of Euclidian homage, nor is it a hat tip to Pythagoras.

What this is is a recognition of the extreme usefulness of the triangle in the urban environment. Oh yes.

If you want to make a public space, forget the square, side-line the circle, and for goodness sake don’t mention the dodecahedron; triangles are where its at. A triangular space enables you see all the edges of the space at the same time and from anywhere within the space, which is great for feelings of safety, but also if you want to line the space with shops and others things than benefit from being seen.

It also allows you to run a route down one side, leaving the rest for other uses but never having any awkward junctions. If you are clever, you can introduce some parking here, making a shared surface to go along with your through-route, and this eliminates some of the conflicts between amenity and functionality.

But they don’t have to be hard, urban spaces – the Great British Villiage has been making great use of the triangle of greens and ponds for ages now. Why haven’t we noticed how good these are?

Let’s have a quick look at some spaces and see how they work, starting in Towcester town centre:

As you can see, this space is busy. I’ve been there; it really is busy and works well, in spite of all the conflicts going on. The traffic is slowed to a more civilised speed, as you never know who will be emerging from the space, be it a car or pedestrian. It serves as a great centre parking area, but can also be used for markets etc. Neat, eh?

Next up, here is a small space from Woodstock. This is for parking, removing the need for dedicated and often inconvenient car parks. It is a pleasant space that does much the same job of that in Towcester, but on a smaller scale. Could work well for residential…just saying.

Woodstock streetview

Finally, here is a green space in Adderbury, again from Oxfordshire. This serves as a public open space, but differs from many new green spaces as it has streets running along all sides. This is a good idea as it means you can still get frontage access to properties whilst increasing surveillance across the green. What is especially nice is that this configuration allows a street hierarchy which lets you gain the benefits of low-grade routes whilst keeping houses ‘shallow’ to the main movement network.

This sort of space endures, adds amenity value, helps with movement and access, and is also very land-efficient. It looks beautiful too. The lesson here is that the triangular configuration can work to do all kinds of jobs, is simple to use. So use them.

Bad layouts make bad places

May 9, 2012adminNews, Opinion

Connected developments are, in the main, better developments. Whilst there is such a thing as over permeability, connected movement networks offer a better way of doing things. They have been at the core of best practice for a good while now, so we should be seeing more of them, not less.

However, sometimes things go wrong. In the two examples below, they have gone really wrong. The first example we’d like to show you is from Hamilton, where the developer saw fit to go fencing…

Maybe they had some left over. Maybe there is some kind of joke that we don’t get but which is really very funny. Or maybe an already slightly iffy layout has been messed up even further by a wilfully bad design that took more effort to get wrong than get right.

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What we are left with is a garden fence jutting out insanely across the street, severing one from the other and doubtlessly providing a nice graffiti wall in the process. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Next up, have a look at this little beauty, also from Leicester. It took us a while to get our heads round what was going on, as at first glances it looks like it all joins up. But alas our optimism was short-lived; none of the routes around Chainama or Augusta connect and there are fences, bollards and bits of green S.L.A.P* all over the shop to make damn sure you get the message: No. Through. Routes.

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This is a shame as what this area sorely needs is to be better connected. The whole area is served by just two points of access and to get anywhere doubtlessly means a car trip. What a waste of time and energy.

As much fun as it is to sit back and poke fun, there is a serious message here; messing up layouts has profound negative long-term effects and there are simply no excuses left in this day and age. You can freely download guides on how to put places together, and the principles behind it are breathtaking in their simplicity.

So please, concentrate on getting this bit right. Good things will follow.

* Space Left Over After Planning: all those cruddy maintenance nightmares that you see dotted about the place in masterplanned developments. No one wants to look after them, they serve no purpose other than to annoy people, and considering the value of land, make no sense at all.

Parking it, right.

February 10, 2012adminOpinion

Lovely, eh?

Parking really, really matters. It has a special role in the way places work, and getting it wrong can cause all sorts of problems down the road (pun totally intended). Getting the parking right has the power to animate streets, calm traffic, encourage neighbourliness, deter crime, and improve efficiency. It can’t bring about world peace – yet – but it can even help to give people bigger and better gardens (which we have long suspected is the first step on the road to world peace).

So how do you do it? How do you get to this utopia of the parked vehicle? It probably won’t surprise you to learn that, with the exception of a few special circumstances, there is a simple recipie that can get you most of the way there. For rules of thumb, you could do worse than:

Put cars at the front, not the back:

Parking at the back means big areas at the back for…well…parking. This means less space at the back for gardens, less use of front doors, and access into the interior of the block. In 30 years time you just know that the image below will be full of old mattresses, annoying oiks being annoying, litter, weeds, and broken glass. Not nice and totally unnecessary.

Pretty….pretty empty…

Put cars on the street:

Cars on the street act as a natural traffic calming measure, forcing drivers to slow down as the dangers of opening doors and kids running out plays on their minds. It also means you can use your front door, which seems like a good idea as it is normally pretty well placed for, you know, getting in to your house. There is a chance that you will bump in to your neighbours when going to and from your car too, which is (usually) a good thing. Finally, having several thousand pounds worth of shiny ‘ride’ outside in the street makes you more likely to look out of the window if you hear a strange noise as there is the slim chance that someone is taking liberties with your stereo. Who knows? This vigilance might interrupt a crime. You hero.

People park here…

…because parking here is ‘rubbish’

Keep it informal.

The most efficient forms of parking are unallocated and even unmarked. People are pretty good at getting lots of cars in to small spaces, so where you can you should let people get on with it and spend your time worrying about something else. Of course, this only works if you allow for parking in the first place.

Accept it. Don’t fight it.

Doing so will only upset you when you visit your development to find people parked wheels up on the pavement whilst your lovely parking court sits empty.

Stop that.

If you want to know more then you should read this. Or you could get in touch and we can help.

Happy parking.

Portishead Signal Experiment

November 2, 2011adminOpinion

This video is brilliant, isn’t it? The plan: turn off traffic lights, see what happens. The results? Well, watch the video and see what you think.

Density and Connectivity

October 24, 2011adminOpinion

I want you to spend some time looking at the graph below:

It shows the relationship between patterns of development and fuel use. Unsurprisingly, compact places like Hong Kong have a far lower per capita consumption than places that sprawl, such as cities in the USA. London sits in the ‘sweet spot’, just at the point before exponential growth in consumption takes off.

Now lets look at some data on CO2:

The correlation between car use, fuel consumption and CO2 is pretty clear (although other factors skew it a bit). Density has a strong role to play in reducing emissions, and it does this mainly through reducing the need to travel. Yet there is strong resistance to making places more dense. 30 dph seems to be about all people are willing to accept and this is laying the groundwork for all kinds of future issues.

Next, lets look at connectivity. Research by Saelen et al (2004) concludes ‘that residents from communities with higher density, greater connectivity, and more land use mix report higher rates of walking/cycling for utilitarian purposes than low-density, poorly connected, and single land use neighborhoods’. There is a wealth of research that shows the importance of the urban environment to health, and it is no surprise that better connected places are more walkable.

Connected, populated places offer the best chance of supporting a mix of uses as well as buses and other services, and we need a shift away from fearing density if we are going to deliver sustainable development on the ground.

The evidence for quality

October 5, 2011adminOpinion

Urban Design as a science is a bit of a mixed bag. Intervention studies are always going to be compromised unless anyone can come up with a ‘control’ Earth. What we are left with needs to be viewed in the context of its limitations but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. This post isn’t meant to be a science lecture but that isn’t going to stop me doing a bit of lecturing anyway. Just because we don’t have perfect information doesn’t mean that we don’t have enough information to act (are you listening climate change deniers?), and I think the results of an imperfect study can still tell us things that are useful. Remember that as you read on…

What follows is an attempt to move at a canter through the evidence for why making quality places matters, and no doubt misses out loads of good stuff in the process.

People respond better to interventions when they are supported by good evidence. But some of our most pervasive and (ahem) best-loved placemaking policy has been lacking in this department (step forward DB32…). Manual for Streets bases its guidance on good data from the UK and abroad and you can read more about it here:

The file you want is quite big, but it is worth reading if you care about the impact streets have on the quality of places because it will support your position or challenge your prejudices depending on your starting point. The researchers for TRL conducted a review of the literature for the background evidence on Manual for Streets, and found little evidence to support the design policies in DB32. More work has been done for MfS2, this time by TMS, and you can read that here:

If you want to frame the quality places arguments in economic terms, then we highly recommend you read this: OK, so its main focus is on walking, but it covers health impacts along with other extra costs of designing places that are car dominated. Taken together with the MfS research, you can start to build a pretty good empirical argument as to why producing quality places matters both in the short term to the developer and in the longer term for sustainability and robustness.

The evidence linking the built environment with mental health is mounting, and it can make for sobering reading. Instances of disorders such as depression show significant increases in poorly designed areas. If you are interested in further reading, here are some of the journals we found:

It’s not just mental heath that is affected; the link between design and obesity has long been theorised and the evidence is starting to build. Reporting in Science Daily researchers ‘found that people who live in neighborhoods that have a mixture of residential and commercial uses have lower levels of obesity than people who live in neighborhoods that are closer to being 100 percent residential. “The more mixed an area, the skinnier people are,” according to Dr. Rundle’ Read the full article here (with links to the paper):

Issues don’t come much more emotive than crime, and if you want a really great run-through of the current evidence then a must-read is this paper by Bill Hillier et al:

In it, they use space syntax to analyse layouts for types of crime and conclude that more connected, higher density layouts are safer (OK, so that’s a bit of a leap and you’ll have to read through the limitations of the various study elements to see if that conclusion stands). Use this data when you next talk to a councillor or developer (or estate agent, or potential home buyer…), and explain to them how the fabric of a place can affect their lives.

The final study we’d like to draw your attention to is the one to use when thinking about a new development and it comes from CABE. On starting out they found that ‘the most striking finding in a review of the literature relating to the quality of residential design is the almost complete absence of any empirical attempts to measure the implications of high quality on costs, prices or values’. Later in the same paper they conclude that quality designs were ‘more desirable and valuable than they would otherwise have been had standard development house types and layouts been employed’ but they urge further research to confirm this. On this point, if you have any good evidence that turns quality in to pound notes, then do get in touch. Oh, and here is the link to the paper:

Bonfire of the quangos will require a new approach to housing delivery and quality, writes Garry Hall

October 5, 2011adminOpinion

In advance of the official reveal on the 20th of October, the leaked listed in the Telegraph sees the abolition of 177 quangos, in line with the Coalition Governments promise to cut funding to undemocratic governance bodies in all sectors. According to the leaked document, the future of CABE and HCA is still under review.

The upcoming Localism Bill seeks to empower communities in the delivery of housing and this shift in emphasis might not be best served at the national level by organizations that are remote from communities, and it is here that ABECs have an opportunity to make a valuable contribution.

Local Housing Trusts will have planning and delivery powers for housing and there is a real chance that such bodies can overcome some of the traditional barriers inhibiting the delivery of quality on the ground. To do so they are going to need cognate and truly independent advice, and ABECs have been delivering in this respect for a number of years. However, the network of Centres will have to work together in highlighting where we can add value, and work hard to ensure that the message across centres in consistent and that we are able to deliver.

Another possible role for independent centres unburdened by with-profit structures is in service delivery for LEPs and other local partnerships. Budget pressures will see design functions outsourced from planning authorities, but perhaps there is another way. Joint design departments would offer considerable savings, and ABECs are perfectly places to administer and deliver this kind of service without the costly setup funds otherwise required.

Hard times are ahead, but the future of the design agenda is far from bleak and we may yet see the fundamental changes needed to really deliver. What’s more, the 3rd sector may be uniquely placed to make it happen.

TransForm Places puts design at the core of the localism agenda

October 5, 2011adminOpinion

Localism is at the core of the new Governments approach to development and TransForm MKSM are working with Local Authorities in delivering truly sustainable projects that reflect the needs of local communities.

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill, announced during the Queens Speech back in May set the tone for future decision making on built environment issues. The abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies was the first big step towards devolving power back to the local level, and Green Paper 14: Open Source Planning seeks to go even further with arguable the biggest change in the field of planning since the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947.

How places form and grow over time has historically always been a very local process, arguably less so in recent times as a limited number of development ‘models’ have been adopted and delivered by a decreasing number of volume builders. With a shift in emphasis back the local level, there is a opportunity for development once again to reflect on the place that it occurs, and here the role of the Local Authority will be critical.

To help, TransForm MKSM have developed a subscription service that enables Local Authorities to gain expert input and advice on design issues and we are adding new organisations all the time. To find out how we can help you, contact us by phone or email.

Understanding the power of streets

October 5, 2011adminOpinion

Here at TransForm we see streets as being one of – if not the – most critical element when putting together a new place or updating an existing one. Streets last. Look around you and the buildings you see will have a short life in comparison to streets. Get the streets wrong and you are stuck with them for a long, long time and the consequences can be dire. Streets influence who can go where, and to some extent how they choose to get there. It is from the street that you experience the rest of the urban environment, and to a degree it is this experience that you take away with you and with which you judge an environment successful or otherwise.
Follow the link below to a short video presentation where Sue talks about streets, their importance in delivering quality places, and outlines how to deliver them.

Get in touch:

TransForm Places Ltd
1a The Avenue
MK45 1BP

+44 7970 363141
Recent projects:
  • Workshop 1, Nov 28th 2011
  • Manual for Streets training with OPUN
  • Avon / Nunn Mills Masterplanning
  • Priors Hall Design Coding
  • NBC Tall Building Strategy
  • Site Visit Club
  • Urban Design Fundamentals
  • MfS Walking Tour
  • Manual for Streets (Jan 11)
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