Is urban design consulting dead?

The role of the traditional urban design consultant is dead.  It died, not with the announcement of the Big Society and a new planning framework, but with the new economic drivers and web empowerment now familiar to us all. The old ways are no longer applicable to the people it affects—communities, politicians and businesses, let alone to the emerging planning regulations and localism laws.   As an independent adviser and designer I have for many years now been much more of an advocate, enabler and agent of groups of people—assisting others, many not previously in any allegiance together, to form partnerships and then to help them mould new ways of seeing and doing things.  This requires time, effort and flexibility.  As a sole practitioner I aim to provide this type of service in an approachable and light-touch manner, though never alone. I bring with me networks of experts and thinkers, and am always looking for more to link up with.

I like to think I have high levels of professionalism and design experience, skills that I have gained designing and enabling for those such as CABE, Creating Excellence and the London Development Agency and now use in enabling for The Prince’s Foundation and The Glass-House Community Led Design.  All this was gleaned from years as a private sector designer working with clients on challenging public and private projects.

Communities designing a landscape project together at Lifford and Strabane on the Irish border


The designer is not a drafter of their own intuitive ideas, presented with fine montages in glossy brochures, but is a negotiator, an inquisitor, a craftsperson, an advocate and sometimes (almost) an anthropologist.  As the web is showing in so many spheres, crowds can innovate and produce – but they need both a facilitator and a structure in which to do this. As a landscape and urban designer I aim to help communities and planners to produce good design in public realm, urban form and strategy through building teams and networks, and helping shape ways and places to deliver group ideas, unpicking layers of a place and rethinking how we shape them in future.

This is a new era and we need to get used to some different, more engaging and communal ways of doing what we have always done.  Whilst collaborative design is not new, what is new to the planning world is the instant feedback of social media, the buzz of the web networks that can influence decisions quickly and enlist mass interest with a click.  The crowd is part of the process whatever happens, whether online or in the street or village hall, and the pathway has to be the urban designer as part of the crowd, shaping and designing with the community and the client together.

Maybe I should change my practice name?