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We design, shape and repair
great places across the UK

We are place creatives, who believe that every neighbourhood deserves to be the subject of big thinking, but at a human scale. We live for great design that enhances the everyday experience and that is derived from the identity of each place.

Our Offer

Urban Place Lab work with placemaking clients, including landowners, investors, developers, local authorities and surrounding communities, in any of the following ways.

Crafting Believable Visions
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Working in partnership with clients we craft believable visions. Whether through design competition or competitive dialogue, we work with other team members towards a proposal that optimises and does justice to the site and its context.  At the same time, we identify suitable consultants who will add strength to the project’s possibilities, to the benefit of pitch and tender.

Our submissions are beautiful, tactile and interactive, trialling the use of physical models to explore value and return on investment (RoI), surpassing the traditional spreadsheet and communicating the fact that ‘design matters’.

Laverick Park (South Tyneside) Garden Village

From a longstanding relationship with the Yuill family, an established house builder, turned developer in the Northeast, we have been appointed to craft a vision for the creation of a new community at Laverick Park. The site enjoys excellent transport links, including access to nearby Metro links, and presents a single, large scale opportunity for growth that can be effectively and efficiently levered off existing infrastructure. Our vision has identified three new villages, that correspond to the supporting urban fabric, repairing the urban fringe, and arriving at a new relationship with the countryside.

We Undertake Genuine and Meaningful Engagement
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We undertake genuine and meaningful engagement, in which we seek to open up the design process to the communities into which new buildings and public space will be integrated.

We don’t just like to engage, we love it! Communicating, discussing and interacting on the issues that make a great place with an existing community is real masterplanning. Key to our engagement process is an approach that ensures every voice is heard, and that a balance of views is captured and reflected on in design decisions going forward. Opening up the floor to a range of views is part of this, challenging the motives of developer & vociferous local resident alike.

Whitehill & Bordon Town Centre Community Planning Event

How does one best canvas views on proposals where these are merely plans and ideas? Answer, make it real! At Whitehill & Bordon, as part of the town centre design process, we worked with 12 architectural practices to refine ideas for the town centre. These were then worked up into a giant 1:100 model measuring 3m x 5m, forming the centrepiece of the first exhibition. The scale allowed people to literally zoom down to street level, to gain an understanding of streets and spaces. This was repeated at 1:200 as architecture was refined.

However, for the final consultation event, we convinced our client to afford us the scope to recreate a ‘walkable’ model, standing 2m tall and comprised of over 5,000 sqft of public realm details and architectural elevations, complete with coffee shop, active town park and an adjacent market. Over 1,300 persons attended on day 1 of the event, and the structure was left in place for 6-months as showpiece and to allow for ongoing consultation and engagement.

Successfully Challenge Planning Conventions
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Our coordination function also extends to the planning process, where we constantly and successfully challenge planning conventions to ensure consistency between vision, masterplan and built reality. Our use of the Structuring Plan mechanism is unique in the UK and provides authorities with a continued, flexible planning consent that is both agile and robust and capable of changes to responses in economic climate without re-opening past consents.

Whitehill & Bordon Structuring Plan

Whilst we don’t infer credit for the initial notion of a Structuring Plan at Whitehill & Bordon (our clients inherited a planning condition requiring one), we can lay claim to the document produced and its usefulness. Much in common with the German ‘Bebauungsplan”, we developed a dynamic masterplan for the regeneration project, that allowed for change and amendments, without needing to resort to new or amended planning permissions.

Each iteration of the Structuring Plan can amend land use, density, building heights and block format, provided the original parameters of the outline permission are adhered to. There are certain limitations, but provided each iteration (supported by a text explanation) is fully rationalised, approval follows through a letter from the planning authority. Simple!

Generating Trust Across the Board
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Urban Place Lab excel at generating trust across the board, and hold a number of retained roles where our local planning and market knowledge is utilised in the development of site briefs and development frameworks.   This often helps public money to go further by avoiding the need to “reinvent the wheel” and our presence supports consistency in emergent planning strategies and policy making.  For us, urban design is about going beyond the red line to embrace town, city and regional strategies.

Strategic Frameworks in Reading, Hampshire, and for Homes England

As both individuals and team members, we have established long-standing relationships with our client base including local authorities and Government agencies. Our first involvement with Reading Borough Council dates back to 1997, where James Gross authored the South West Reading Urban Design Framework, and now in 2019, we still maintain strong relations with the Authority, consistency winning work to advise the Council on some of the most strategic sites and investments going forward.

Similarly, we have been working in Hampshire for over a decade, on both framework, and directly instructed appointments for both County and District Councils.

A long-term outlook and invested role is the hallmark of the Urban Place Lab approach.

Since February 2019, we have been appointed, through Atkins on the Homes England Multidisciplinary Panel for masterplanning and urban design. This continues a relationship with Homes England, and the HCA and English Partnerships before them, that can be traced back to the regeneration of coalfields in the Northeast in the 1990’s and the ongoing regeneration of Basildon Town Centre in the early 2000’s.

With our championing of several Garden Community proposals, track record as lead author of a 2014 Wolfson Economic Prize (Finalist) submission into Garden Cities and whole-place visioning of Whitehill & Bordon, a key Homes England priority, we are well placed to continue developing our trusted relationship as a provider of strategic design and regeneration advice to Government.

Getting Dirty!
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We love getting dirty on the detail of a scheme, rolling our sleeves up to deliver those all important elements of distinction wanted by the local community, even in the face of official indifference or even antagonism!   Recognising that it is often the little things that make the greatest difference, we put our energies, hands and hearts into transformative initiatives that are the proof of positive change, putting the community on track.

Bordon Wayfinding

As part of the identification of Whitehill & Bordon as a Healthy New Town (HNT), we identified a need for the impact of the regeneration (mainly focused to the west of the settlement), to better reach out and benefit the existing community. Established through a set of collaborative workshops, cross-agency and with a range of stakeholders, a wayfinding strategy was convened, that sought to establish and mark out better links to improve east-west movement across the town.

Undertaking analysis of existing routes with up to 200 pupils from four schools, the local disability action group and local community groups, we mapped the quality of local routes (including some secret ones!). We identified strategies for signage, seating and specific interventions (pocket parks) before going on to deliver this strategy through part permitted, part ‘guerrilla’ activity (erecting as many as 340 (approved) healthy messaging signs overnight), culminating in the creation of a new community garden, which was eventually adopted by local residents as a new focus in an areas formerly devoid of meeting space.

Identify and Create Opportunities
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We work with our clients to identify and create opportunities, whether this be individual site options, whole land portfolios, progressive solutions for new places and policy-changing concepts for the delivery of new communities, including regional strategies.

Employing GIS and socio-economic datasets, combined with land registry information, we  identify site requirements for clients, by creating specific search algorithms that reveal patterns in land ownership, site size, constraints and demographic, before making introductions to land owners that focus on legacy and quality of outcome

Creating Designs That Go Deeper
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We create designs that go deeper.  Our experience and the lesson of inspirational places has taught us that a truly exemplary vision needs to offer more than the standard, live-work-play patter too frequently turned out by industry. Committing to make change visible and rapid, building upon local strengths (often unappreciated) we want to both change the reputation of a place and alter universal attitudes towards growth and development.

Above all, we want to build the right scheme in the right place, and establish a masterplan with both robustness and flexibility to adapt and evolve over time.

Whitehill & Bordon Regeneration (Prince Philip Park)

Our ambition at Whitehill & Bordon is to develop an understanding of place that is truly evolved from the local community, the built-form, and the psyche of being. Rather than merely ‘pilot’ our team into the project, we aim to experience, guide and refine the growth of Whitehill & Bordon, first-hand. In common with the great Garden City architects of Letchworth, and the New Town Architects of Harlow, we have set up a meanwhile office in the town, and have made a commitment to be one of the first tenants of the new Maker’s Market, once complete in 2021. This allows us to experience the regeneration ‘ground up’, build lasting relationships with local stakeholders, and take a genuine social interest in the success of the project, where we hope to remain involved for the duration of its delivery.

Lift and Uphold Place Value
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By ensuring there is no gap between vision and reality, Urban Place Lab lift and uphold place value.  We provide consistent advice to clients on urban design, architecture, and masterplanning coordination.  Taking a convenor role, we provide clients with continuity of vision and message, and are at your shoulder to ensure values are maximised in terms of place and margin.

We have had particular success working with clients who have embraced the principle of Continuous Value Investment and who are happy to forego the short term realisation of value in conventional land sale for higher and more certain long term profits and revenue streams.

Bordon Whole Town Regeneration (with the MoD/DIO as landowner)

Public sector land ownership, and/or patient capital is the key to successful places. Its an age-old recipe, but one which has fallen out of favour as a consequence of the UK’s ‘get rich quick’ planning system. There is little science to the notion of investing to accumulate, but the leverage that land can bring to a development project, can be put to better use when directing borrowing, or capital into early infrastructure works. This impacts positively on cashflow down the line, when development is better accessed, served by better schools, shops and community facilities. Our joint venture clients are practicing this model at Whitehill & Bordon with the MoD (DIO) as landowner.

However, a critical component of the success of the model remains with the design team to ensure consistent quality and continuity of vision. As authors of the original vision, we remain engaged, steering consultation events, writing design codes and monitoring and updating the original masterplan. Our role extends to developing briefs for architects and other designers, and communicating the continuity of the original vision to the community.

Rediscovering the Art of Town Building
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Naturally, we love to positively influence what gets built as well, and by rediscovering the art of town building, we help guide clients to the right architects, for the right buildings, in the right places. With our design panel experience, the team is able to contribute either directly, or through comment, to design detailing, and work with clients in a mentoring capacity to explore elements (such as proportions and materials) that impact on the success of a building in its context.  We avoid the philosophy of the single design authority and the cliché of traditional architectural autocracy, believing instead in promoting and facilitating design evolution and purposeful dialogue.

Minster Quarter Urban Design Framework, Reading

Reading, as well as being the largest town in the UK not to be a city, has something of a reputation of an unloved place. True, it’s a magnet for high-tech employment and the number one location for transport investment outside of London or Birmingham, but it lacks the trendiness (and the weather) of Palo Alto, or the richness of the townscape of Barcelona.

So, when we were approached by the Borough Council to masterplan the former civic area site, we asked the question – What could this do for the town? The answer lay not within the redline of the site, but outside it. Arguably Reading’s greatest (and certainly, oldest) building, is the Minster of St Mary, dating back to 979. Instead of pride of place in a beautiful town square, this building sits behind bus stops, taxi laybys and shopping centres, surrounded by what could be the best medieval frontages in the town.

Looking to open the churchyard up as a grand public space, we convinced the client to extend the project area to include the Minster and the surrounding frontages, and increased density on the main civic centre site to unlock sufficient value to fund a programme of future environmental enhancements, with the aim of putting the heart back into the town and creating a new focal point around one of the finest buildings in the Southeast.

Holding Our Clients to Account
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Urban Place Lab are not afraid to hold the client to account in keeping the vision alive and on track through long timeframes and often complicated and occasionally fraught delivery phases.  In the game for the long-term, we provide continuity into the client team and the local community, often acting as client’s proxy in presenting the scheme, and being a trusted intermediary between the client and external parties. We promote design codes and maintain attention to detail on specific features such as boundary walls, window proportion and house fixtures that can make all the difference to the consistency and visual appeal of large schemes, holding their value.

Whitehill & Bordon Phase 1 Residential Parcels

In the typical masterplanning process, the role of the urban designer fades once a project moves forward to the Reserved Matters Stage. With credit directed towards our clients on the first phase of the residential development at Whitehill & Bordon, we were afforded a platform to actively critique emerging phase 1 designs, which initially, sought to work primarily with standard industry house types.

Understanding where changes could be made that allowed the RMA to better match the initial vision, we encouraged the client team to consider larger window openings, application of colour to feature (apartment) building details (oriel windows), and (in later stages also) resist calls for key frontages to become vehicular roadways, instead focusing on quality of the public realm and pedestrian environment.

Whilst not universally supported at the planning stage, remaining firm on these aspects, has resulted in design implementation, that has seen our clients praised by the local authority and local community for attention to detail and improvements over the norm in terms of building and design quality, ‘locking’ these elements into future design phases, and affording us a stable platform to insist on further enhancements going forward.

Learn More

Visit our project pages to find out more about what we’ve done and how we work.

Our Work