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1: Urban Design Decision-Making

WP1SideStripThis Sustainability Issue examined the idea that to enable sustainable urban design decision-making, there must a decision-making process for the design of the urban environment. Through case studies, researchers on the VivaCity2020 project were able to discover the process for how urban design decision-making takes place on live urban development projects in three major UK cities. Specifically, the case studies showed who is involved in urban design decision-making, what tools and resources they use when making decisions, to what extent decision-makers consider sustainability and how decision-makers progress from the beginning of a project through to the end. This information was invaluable in helping to develop a re-conceptualised urban design decision-making process that makes improvements on what is known in practice and demonstrates where and how to incorporate sustainability at each process stage.

Case Studies

Urban development projects were selected in each of the three case study cities, based on their scale and type of development. In Clerkenwell, London, we examined a mixed-use urban block that contained both contemporary and listed building. In Sheffield, we looked at a large, mixed-use urban quarter in need of repair and enhancement (known as the Devonshire Quarter). In Salford, Greater Manchester, we studied a 2,200-hectare regeneration site (known as Central Salford). Once the projects were selected, urban design decision-making processes were chronologically mapped, using timelines to distinguish stages and tasks. This part of the research provided examples of the process-in-practice.


To map the urban design decision-making processes for the three case study sites, data was collected using a variety of methods. The most common method was that of interviewing important decision-makers and stakeholders about their experiences with the case study sites and their knowledge of urban design decision-making. Local authorities, members of urban regeneration companies and non-governmental organisations, developers, architects, planners, local businesspeople and residents comprised the interviewees. Other methods of obtaining information involved observations at decision-makers’ meetings, questionnaires to the public about urban designs and the gathering of archival material (e.g., newspapers, report, policies).


None of the decision-makers in the three case studies followed an explicit urban design decision-making process when making decisions. Rather, they used prior experience and knowledge to make decision on an ad hoc basis.

Sustainability as a holistic concept was rarely considered in urban design decision-making. Guided by policy and/or ‘forward thinkers’, however, some decision-makers thought about what was best for an area and took actions that possessed elements of sustainability (e.g., creating a social hub with a retail incubator, emphasising surveillance and permeability).

Many of the urban design decision-making tools mentioned by interviewees were human-centred (e.g., having visionary leadership, creating the ‘right team’, making sure that planning officers have the appropriate skills), showing that people and personalities are just as important as having the proper information leading up to the decision. Additional tools included policies; government guidelines on planning, urban design and sustainability; academic and trade journals, and; travelling to and experience other cities. Not many decision-makers talked about ICT tools, such as VR or micro-simulations, but that could be because those types of tools are used less at a strategic decision-making level and more on a day-to-day basis (many of the interviewees were viewed as strategic decision-makers).

Click here for a list of Sustainability Issue One's Academic Publications.


ToolsHouseCase studies

The case studies discuss three different urban development projects in UK cities: an urban block in Clerkenwell, London; the mixed-use urban Devonshire Quarter in Sheffield, and; a 2,200-hectare site in Central Salford, Greater Manchester. Through the collection of data about these projects, three different urban design decision-making processes were mapped, showing the stages of each process, who the decision-makers were, what tools were used in decision-making and how and where sustainability was considered throughout the process stages.

ToolsHouseUrban design decision-making process

This process builds on the work from the case studies, a review of the relevant literature, expert panel workshops and internships with various local authorities. It presents a new way of thinking about urban design decision-making that incorporates sustainability into each stage of the process. This ensures that decision-makers are more holistically considering and making tradeoffs about a host of sustainability issues, from the idea stage until an urban development project begins to decline.

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