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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 18:12 GMT
What did architects ever do for us?
Who should take the rap for society's ills? The government says bad architects are as guilty as anyone, and it's now making good design a cornerstone of planning policy.

There's always been more to architecture than aesthetics - just witness how the Victorians, like the Romans before then, seemed to effortlessly engender civic pride with their grand public spaces.

Then look at how not to do it. The tower blocks and concrete jungle housing estates of the 1960s and 70s are a classic case in point, although naive and irresponsible planning continues to this day.

Open in new window : Outstanding architecture
See some examples of outstanding modern architecture
The message that good design can help society as a whole will be hammered home at this week's Urban Summit, a two-day event set up to debate the regeneration of our inner cities.

John Prescott will put his name to a new manifesto on design standards which signals the values by which new buildings will be judged in future.

Called The Value of Good Design, it outlines six key areas for consideration:


About 100 new hospitals will be built between now and 2010, but as well as providing more bed space, the buildings themselves will be judged on their health benefits.

hospital ward
A pleasant environment helps patients recover
Research shows that patients in well-designed, modern buildings get better quicker than those in conventional wards, according to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe).

The new organisation, which has drawn up the Value of Good Design document, vets plans for all major public developments and can reject blueprints on the grounds of bad design. It will look for designs which make strong use of natural light and windows overlooking natural landscapes.

A study in Nottingham found patients in wards with good lighting, big windows, external views and smaller clusters of beds returned home quicker than those in old buildings. They had lower pulse rates and blood pressure readings and lower prescribed drug intakes.


Today, it's widely acknowledged that design can be used to limit crime. Many police forces have "architectural liaison" teams who pore over plans for new developments to identify weak spots.

Damilola Taylor
Schoolboy Damilola Taylor died on this estate
The idea that architecture and crime-prevention could be linked goes back 30 years, to the principle of "defensible space".

Research found that subtle psychological boundaries - such as gardens or hedges - could be as effective in protecting property as robust, physical fences.

The emphasis now is on houses with good visibility, and homes that face each other to allow mutual surveillance. Through-streets draw in pedestrians, who will tend to deter burglars.


New schools will also need to make good use of natural light, following research which shows this helps learning.

Martine Hamilton Knight photo
Hampden Gurney school in London, shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize
Pupils appear to behave better in modern, well designed schools and studies in the US have put an emphasis on more space for each pupil.

One school in Britain was able to cut the number of playground monitors by redesigning the space, allowing it to switch resources to other areas. And it's not only children who do well out of it - research in the UK found that new buildings boosted teachers' morale.


Britain's post-war housing estates are a notorious example of how hostile architecture can break up communities.

Housing estate in Hackney is toppled
Tower blocks have fallen from favour
Poor housing and bad design can create a breeding ground for crime. Good design tends to boost property prices, something that will give home owners more of a stake in their surroundings.

Bad housing is also a health issue. According to a UK study, billions of pounds a year are spent on treating illnesses arising from poor housing conditions.


At the other end of the scale, design is also important to big business. A survey of blue chip companies, such as British Airways and Boots, which have invested heavily in bespoke offices, found they had done so to improve the functionality of workplaces and keep employees happy.

Good design can also mean better use of space, leading to savings in rent payments.

Civic pride

Councils across the UK have woken up to the fact that eye-catching architecture alone can help generate civic pride and bring in tourism. Witness the success of Birmingham's Bridley Place, where the city's old canal-side area has been transformed, with thoughtful design, from a wasteland into a busy social hub.

Millennium Eye Bridge, foreground
Bridges frame the Tyne riverscape
Gateshead's radical Millennium Bridge, with its sweeping arch that tips up to allow ships to pass through, is another strong example.

New and visually exciting art galleries in St Ives, Cornwall, and Walsall, West Midlands, have boosted trade for nearby businesses while Peckham's award-winning modern library led to a steep increase in visits and book lendings.

Research by John Prescott's office found that well designed commercial centres resulted in high rental levels, lower maintenance costs and increased public support for the development.

See also:

14 Oct 02 | England
18 Jul 02 | UK
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