Do sustainability measures constrain creativity in urban design?

By Susan Juned and Joanne M Leach and Christopher T Boyko and Rachel Cooper and Anna Woodeson and Jim Eyre and Chris DF Rogers | 22 June 2015

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced in 2012, has as a key tenet a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Less noted is an aim, embodied in the Ministerial introduction, that planning should be a 'creative process'. The Framework requires that good design should contribute positively to making places better for people.

The NPPF does not set out any process or criteria whereby sustainable development might be said to have been achieved. Rather, it sets out principles and asks that Local Planning Authorities consider using design codes that avoid unnecessary prescription or detail, and that planning policies should not stifle innovation.

Last year, a team of researchers based at the universities of Birmingham and Lancaster undertook research on two questions: (1) do sustainability guidelines and assessments hinder or encourage creativity and innovation in urban design; and, (2) how might any negative impacts be mitigated and positive impacts promoted?

The researchers carried out interviews with built environment professionals, undertook a critical analysis of sustainable development assessment methods in general use (e.g., BREEAM, Design Review) and identified characteristics that promote creativity and innovation in urban design.

The challenge for professionals is to address those aspects of sustainability assessment methods that are viewed negatively (such as being too prescriptive, rigid and onerous) and apply the skills needed to deliver creative and innovative solutions that will ensure future sustainability.

In total, 32 sustainable development assessment methods were identified by interviewees. Opinions on the methods were mixed. Some of the interviewees reported that the methods can be too scientific or prescriptive and can thus stifle creativity and innovation. However, others took a different view, citing the ability of sustainability assessment methods to prompt thinking on issues that might not otherwise have been considered (e.g., sustainability, resilience).

Interviewees also were split as to whether methods should consider sustainability holistically and whether more emphasis was needed on social equity and social justice. The comments suggest that the current suite of available methods can be used as part of a larger creative process for including a greater number and diversity of voices in urban design, but this is largely dependent upon the capability and capacity of the users to do so.

This theme runs throughout the investigation: in the end, it is up to built environment professionals to engage with the bigger 'urban design' picture, to understand the context of development and to use the most appropriate tools. No off-the-shelf sustainability assessment method can fully enable (or hinder) users; perhaps, though, sustainability assessment methods should do more to encourage creativity by evaluating the value and quality of design, not just their impact on sustainability.

The team concluded that creativity and innovation are positively promoted by eight characteristics:

1.    Risk taking in idea generation
2.    Visionary leadership
3.    Team understanding and commitment
4.    Clear, and an ideally visionary, brief and strategy
5.    Access to relevant information and appropriate and sufficient resources
6.    Ownership of ideas
7.    Good communication skills, including visualisation and diplomatic skills
8.    A good working relationship with stakeholders outside the design team

Encouraging these eight, key characteristics is fundamental to fostering creativity and innovation in sustainability assessment methods.

Future development of sustainability assessment methods should think more broadly about those who use their methods and for what purpose.

Sustainability has to be embedded into society and should encourage creative design solutions. For those grappling with the NPPF, the message is to become familiar with sustainability assessment methods, select the method or methods to be used based upon the context of the development in hand and, finally, to use the methods as expansively as possible as part of an overarching process that encourages creativity and innovation throughout.

To read the full paper, please visit:

To contact the authors, please email Joanne Leach in the first instance:

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