The new National Model Design Code is being trialled across the UK. Gail Mayhew, managing director of Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole’s new placemaking company FuturePlaces, looks at the lessons that can be learnt from previous attempts to codify urban design.


Nansledan, an extension to Newquay, Cornwall, on Duchy of Cornwall land implemented a design code that embodied the principles of architecture and urban planning championed by the Prince of Wales.

Launched last year, the new National Model Design Code is being trialled across more than a dozen areas in Britain, including Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole (BCP), as a way of determining how better and more appropriate buildings and places can be created for the communities they serve.

BCP Council was delighted to secure a share of the Department of Levelling Up, Homes and Communities’ £3m Design Codes pilot to help set rigorous standards for design in two key town-centre locations, Lansdowne in Bournemouth, and Poole Quays, which are being regenerated through the council’s new placemaking company, FuturePlaces.


The trial itself will be an important test in determining the extent to which the new design codes make a genuine difference. Since we in the UK traditionally have operated on a principles-based system, there will inevitably be questions asked about whether codifying urban design can lead to the sort of developments we all want to see; namely good, well thought-out spaces, where communities have had their say and the results are welcomed by everyone.

That said, design codes already sit at the heart of a number of urban extensions that are relatively more successful than the housebuilder product. Take Nansledan in Newquay, Cornwall, Tornagrain in the Scottish Highlands and Eddington, Cambridge North – three schemes that have been delivered relatively rapidly by various different developers. They’ve all achieved a level of cohesion that is well considered, and where the public realm works considerably better than your average housing scheme.


Eddington, the first neighbourhood within the North West Cambridge Development, has delivered coherence and high-quality public realm under the enlightened stewardship of the University of Cambridge.

But was it actually the design code that has brought this about? These were all stewardship-driven schemes, and crucially the landowner retained a long-term interest in the development – driving design quality through project management and contractual arrangements. It remains unclear what happens where a local community, or local authority for that matter, develops a design code with no legal and financial basis to make it happen. This is one of the points that BCP will test – both areas that will form the design code pilot have only limited public-sector land ownership and the question of how the code can be enforced with third party developers is at the heart of the exercise.

Greenfield developments where codes have been deployed in the UK offer an opportunity to learn. They have been shown to be effective where there is a long-term ‘stewardship’ land interest looking to build out the whole scheme and not planning to sell it on. However, whether codes can be effectively applied in a situation where you don’t have outright ownership remains to be seen.


We believe that FuturePlaces demonstrates that local authorities can be proactive, creating public interest stewardship-led development and investment entities. These can work in partnership with the private sector to secure better development and urban design through collaborative working, as well as design regulation. Linked to municipal stewardship, there is an opportunity for design codes to secure the potential of re-emerging towns and cities around the UK through transformative development. But it is still very much in the early stages.

We can learn a lot from our European neighbours. Dutch and Danish designers make a clearer distinction between urban design, masterplanning and architecture. They see urban design and masterplanning as two discrete activities, a distinction that UK architects could do well to adopt. This is strongly relevant to design codes as urban design should guide street layout and proportions, as well as the design and specification of the public realm.

Masterplanning which embraces massing and development is, and potentially should remain, a much more subjective choice guided by client requirements, market and viability.


Certainly RIBA’s scheme of works needs to recognise that there is a difference of process between creating an urban design scheme and producing a masterplan or a building. At the moment it is geared towards the latter. Moving on from RIBA’s position would involve a massive shift in how firms tackle masterplanning; instead of being conceived as ‘big architecture’, it would start from the premise of the urban realm, the street and landscape, the infrastructure requirement, distribution of uses and response to context. Part 0-1 of the scheme of works needs to be rethought for neighbourhood-scale schemes to consider briefing as an essential and distinct activity, grounded in deep and broad stakeholder engagement to respond to the complex interwoven issues that must be resolved when placemaking on a wider scale.

Rem Koolhaas talks about this in terms of a tension arising in his office between the practice of urbanism and that of architecture: architecture is finite and as an architect you are irresponsible if you do not design every last detail. But surely good- quality urbanism should be open ended? Because if it’s good it will be there for 1,000 years or more, and will accommodate technologies and ways of living we cannot begin to dream of.


There are political pressures too. Politicians understandably try to put a lot of what we see as our professional activity into the hands of communities, thinking that by empowering them they will buy into a development. But being an architect or an urban planner is a really complex business. The best quality design relies on both inputs – the community’s expert knowledge of their place combined with the expert insight and experience of a well-structured design team to bring schemes to life. Great design is the product of good process, and the design code pilot is a welcome step towards reconsidering how local insight and professional expertise can be brought together to create great places.

What is vital is to bring together the local love of place with the placemaking skills of expert designers, innovative developers, planners and financiers. This might be how design codes manifest themselves: bridging the skillsets, embedded positions and the expectations of the parties involved – making ‘place’ the lens through which all other decisions are focused. Such a collaborative approach – and the result of it, namely design codes that are indeed fit for purpose – could prove crucial to achieving the better-planned places we all want.