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The Master Plan - An overview of urban planning

Key to any successful regeneration project is the masterplan which must combine the aspirations of all the parties involved, be it the owner, developer or user. As Jessica Rowson finds, engineers possess many of the requisite skills for this task.

Local authorities the length and breadth of Britain are in the process of renewing urban areas to eliminate the mistakes of the past and
provide attractive, safe spaces where people can live, work, shop and play.

In almost every case, public sector seed money is backed up by private investment. The aspirations of both funding parties have to be recognised and catered for, as well as those of the people who will ultimately be using the space. The key to this lies with the masterplan and the engineers who draw it up.

Up and down Britain are countless examples of urban design gone wrong: where the dream city within a city has turned into the worst kind of ghetto, or a free-flowing transport planning triumph has spelled danger for those trying to cross the road.

Today, many of these planning disasters are being revisited in the form of multi-million pound regeneration schemes. But what is to stop the planners, the architects and engineers, from making the same mistakes again?

"With urban regeneration projects, the challenge is how you fit all the elements for a scheme in one small area; all the different aspects of transport, utilities and how it all works together," says Peter Brett Associates partner Keith Mitchell.

"We need to check what’s feasible before the masterplan is completed and fixed."

Engineers are well suited to take a central role in the masterplanning process.

"A good engineer with a broad overview or knowledge base makes a good masterplanner," says Peter Brett International partner, Nigel Brown.

"Transport is an early issue with masterplanning. Engineers involved with this can then quite often end up with an overall co-ordination role."

Masterplanning has evolved over the years, particularly as sustainability has crept up the agenda.

"In the past it would have been way down the list to check that the transport solution worked properly and utilities fitted in," says Buro Happold infrastructure discipline director Andrew Comer.

"Things have changed radically. There is no doubt the climate change agenda has triggered a different type of approach."

Nowadays, he says, "proposals have good sustainable solutions, are able to identify decentralised infrastructure for power and water, public transport, how waste is managed and the operation of the site".

Infrastructure is normally a matter for the public sector, but new private housing developments put an extra burden on existing infrastructure, in many instances already creaking at the seams. Masterplanning engineers the coming together of the public and private sectors, but it is a delicate balance between the two.

"It’s difficult for developers to explain the difficulties they’re facing to the public sector officials who think they [the developers] are making a pile of money and are out to get away with whatever they can," says Comer.

"They’re coming at masterplanning from different sides of the table, but they have a common goal. We are at the point where there’s not much redundancy in existing infrastructure. But who is responsible for seeing that it still functions and doesn’t collapse with new developments? The private sector sees it as regional issue and that it should come from government purse strings while the local authority is trying its best to make sure the fabric of the city doesn’t break down," adds Comer.

These days, work in developing countries experiencing mass urban migration is providing UK masterplanners with opportunities to try new ideas and create schemes that are not hemmed in by infrastructure already in place and stifled by existing protocols. In China around 300M people are expected to move from the countryside to cities and other developing countries are also experiencing mass urban migration (see below).

"In developing countries there is less regulation," says Comer.

"Masterplanners can set the agenda with the right team. The client can be steered towards thinking that might have otherwise been missed. However, you need to understand what the client wants. They may just want better houses and offices and a way to move around."

"The scheme has to work," emphasises Brown.

"Eighteen years ago we were working on Brandenburg Park [in Berlin]. The wall had just come down and there was a great opportunity to introduce new ideas, but the scheme was driven by culture, economics and employment. Here we have had 15 years of growth and so everything’s a bit greener, but abroad, it’s still about 'does it work', particularly with regard to culture, economics and employment."

When it comes to the regeneration of an area, it can be a very long process. In the UK, there is normally a lengthy consultation process to ensure the proposals will work and be accepted by the end users. Masterplans can also cover huge areas. “Periods of build out can have a 20-year programme from conception to completion," says Comer.

"What we’ve learnt to do is make what we’re planning flexible. Economics change and local policies alter. We need to find a framework that can be readily adapted to suit a changing world and technologies."

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