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What We Do

We are place creatives, who believe that every neighbourhood deserves to be the subject of big thinking, but at a human scale. Envisioning, new and regenerating existing communities is a long and complex process, so we have honed our skills as designer/facilitators to keep development on track from inception to completion.

Urban Place Lab are developing a number of test platforms for neighbourhood planning that are industry changing & high quality whilst achieving sustainable returns for communities and investors. Using hands-on, visible R&D, we employ place science and testable propositions to design and create places of distinction.

We are working with some of the most significant players in UK property and construction including landed estates, major home builders, institutional land owners, local authorities and progressive, smaller developers.

Why We Are Different

We think that making places which embed a strong social and cultural context is both an art and a science. The natural and organic evolution of communities, evident in historic townscape, has been lost in an industry driven by hard numbers, box ticking, and a planning process lead by opportunism rather than common sense.

Urban Place Lab believe that conventional market analysis, property values, and demographics should not be the sole indicators of a successful new place. Our approach to urban design involves the co-education of client and community, arriving at a unified ambition and direction emphasising quality and well-being. This involves being frank about what makes great places succeed.

We want to work with clients keen on making a difference and building better.

Who We Are

Collaborating for almost a decade before taking the plunge as an entrepreneurial start-up, the leadership of Urban Place Lab is comprised of directors James and Katarina Gross, Tina Spires, and consultant architectural director Alex Dutton.

We set up Urban Place Lab in response to market interest in our shared professional and human values. In our corporate harness, we all too frequently heard comments on our approach such as “why don’t your colleagues do it like this?’, “we’ve never done it this way before” and “you are a rare breed”. Faced with the spectre of losing our identity in a big organisation, and pledged to discovering new and innovative ways to improve projects and places, Urban Place Lab was born out of a few too many gin and tonics at the Christmas party and a leap of faith.

Working together for many years in our respective corporate roles, we developed a mutual respect and a team approach distinct from other colleagues. A combination of cheeky bedside manner, Dutch-inspired architectural training, and some unwavering Germanic discipline, brings a human touch to what we do now; the delivery of robust, inventive, well considered and technically adapt placemaking. These qualities are the hallmarks of the Urban Place Lab product.

Add to this the fixing power and Hollywood mentality of Urban Place Lab’s Communications Director, NYU Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Katarina Gross and you have a creative force for change at the cutting edge of industry thinking.

Beginning his career as an apprentice landscape gardener on a country estate, James became a chartered landscape architect and then graduated from Oxford Brookes University in 1997 with an M.A. in Urban Design.

Ten years’ experience in property and development eventually led to a masterplanning director role at Barton Willmore, a career shifting secondment to the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, and success in reaching the shortlist for the Wolfson Economic Prize for Garden Cities Competition in 2014.

Leaving Barton Willmore to found Urban Place Lab with Tina Spires, James combines design and business development functions. An Academician at the Academy of Urbanism, he is a regular contributor to Here and Now journal, lectures on Sustainable Urbanism at the University of Oxford (Kellogg College) and has made appearances on the BBC on housing growth and Green Belt issues.

Architecturally trained in Germany, and a postgraduate of the Joint Centre for Urban Design (JCUD) at Oxford Brookes University, Tina is passionate about creating places that people aspire to live, and grow old in. She is a highly experienced urban designer and placemaker with strong technical knowledge to create workable solutions.

Having worked for Barton Willmore for 13 years, Tina was part of the team behind the industry standard setting applications at Filton Airfield and Whittlesford Hospital, that became the new norm for Design and Access Statements, and were singled out as best practice by (what is now) Homes England.

With a particular eye and appreciation for European best-practice, and familiarity with some of the best in European development models, Tina is a regular advocate of pushing design boundaries to achieve better places.

With responsibility for business communications and administration, Katarina keeps the business on the straight and narrow. An eye for financial detail and a rare ability to communicate with just about anyone, irrespective of language or cultural barriers, Katarina works alongside clients, the public and the consumer facing side of Urban Place Lab, to communicate design intent, practice ideals and place ambition, creating support for place-change in the process.

Katarina graduated in film and television from NYU. Her background working for Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures, coupled with a role in the US Government facilitating post-conflict regeneration in her native Yugoslavia, have given her a unique insight into communication networks. Added to this experience of setting up pan-European supply chains in a multi-language environment, Katarina advises on achieving meaningful dialogue in complex situations.

Alex joined Urban Place Lab, a year following our inception in 2016. Having developed an affinity working with James on projects delivered alongside the Prince’s Foundation including the first phases of RAF Upper Heyford (Heyford Park) and the Welsh House Types Portfolio (a test series of houses based upon Welsh vernacular/traditional homes for Coed Darcy), Alex approached Urban Place Lab about joining in a consultant architectural director capacity.

Alex has helped develop Urban Place Lab’s architectural capacity, including reserved matters applications up to 100 homes, house-typology design and design review roles, alongside mixed use designs for buildings as diverse as nurseries, churches, shops as well as housing layouts.

Working with a strong sense of human scale and proportion, Alex is one of a limited cadre of architects with an ability to immediately identify what may be wrong with a design, and make the improvements that lead to a building in harmony with place and the environment.

Alex has a particularly strong knowledge-base of self and custom build, and alongside his role with Urban Place Lab, is a Director of Maak Architecture Ltd and is progressing live projects in Bristol and elsewhere that will make larger-scale community-build housing projects become a reality.

Working with us

Working with Urban Place Lab is about experiencing a different approach to achieve meaningful outcomes. Our wholesome philosophy means we are interested in the full development timeline, not just a small niche part of it. In this, we are profoundly different from the standard consultancy approach – architects, planners, highway engineers etc. in the built environment, who tend towards a silo mentality enforced by the blinkers of their profession. Large scale community planning is blighted by sequential processes in which the design concept is passed from hand to hand in a way that does no service to the built outcome. Resisting this status quo, we try instead to anticipate the many pitfalls the delivery of development over many years can experience, and embed some core principles that will safeguard a scheme’s quality throughout its long gestation.

It is precisely this approach we have taken at Whitehill & Bordon where we continue to be retained as a key advisor on this major project for over 3,000 homes delivered over fifteen years in Hampshire.