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Understanding the local area affected by your scheme

There are many similarities between understanding places to inform the planning process and understanding them to inform highway works. But as highway schemes tend to focus on the public realm and movement, it is worth focusing on things like:
  • how the local movement network functions
  • the land use pattern and intensity of activity in the area
  • traffic and pedestrian flows
  • microclimate and flooding potential
  • existing or required biodiversity
  • the worries and aspirations of existing and potential highway users
We often use the word ‘context’ to sum up the characteristics, problems, demands and logistics of an existing place. What we really mean when we say context is that we have a feel for the area and know what any changes to its public realm should try to achieve.

Click here to access our lesson on Making balanced decisions about highways schemes

Urban block

An urban block is a parcel of land defined by the things that surround it.Urban blocks are usually defined by streets, but could also be bounded by rivers, railway lines or farmland.

The block is the basic ingredient of good urban areas because:
  • People need to get to buildings – the block allows entrances to be placed on the outward facing edge, facing the street.
  • Most buildings have backs and fronts - the back needs to stay private (garden or service yard), and the front needs to be public (front door or shop front). The block allows all the backs to face and protect each other, hiding noisy, smelly or unsightly activities away from public spaces.
  • The block is an efficient way to use space – it does not leave lots of left over little bits that don't have a use.
  • It optimises access routes – usually providing the shortest routes to lots of places.

Click here to access our lesson on The individual elements

Urban design frameworks

An urban design framework – or development framework - is a document describing and illustrating how design policies and principles should be implemented in an area where there is a need to control, guide or promote change. It should include a two-dimensional vision of future infrastructure requirements.

Click here to access our lesson on Planning tools

Urban structure

Places are made up of a series of structural elements that create character, dictate function and facilitate or restrict movement. These elements are:
  • rivers, hills, beaches, forests – the major geographical features that mould places
  • highways, rail lines and roads – the big linking components that join places
  • blocks – one or more buildings that sit together surrounded by streets
  • parks, open spaces and squares – spaces to be used by all
  • streets, footpaths and cycleways – the local routes that help you get around neighbourhoods
  • building parts (like doors, windows and walls) - that create buildings
  • space parts (like paving, street furniture and plants)
  • details (like curb stones or bricks) – the smallest but probably most numerous component
and of course people, otherwise there is no point in creating spaces!

Click here to access our lesson on Understanding urban structure


Does the statement clearly explain how the site fits in with surrounding uses? It is normally the mix of uses in a neighbourhood that is important to creating successful places, not the use on a single site.

Click here to access our lesson on Planning tools


Have you ever thought why some places work and some don’t?

Places that work well usually have similar characteristics, but there is something more going on. Successful places tend to meet a need; they have a purpose, they fulfil a role. These places are cherished and looked after, and they develop and maintain their position over time. This means that people are proud of them and feel affection for them.

These are tough things to achieve and they need more than clever design work. They rely on good planning, community involvement, management and often political will and determination. But behind all this is the need to set out and agree what the space will be used for and the role it should play in the area and community. These roles and uses need to be practical, deliverable and reasonable. If it’s the right role, then the place has a fighting chance to become or remain successful.

Click here to access our lesson on Places with a purpose


When considering whether a place is well-designed for its proposed use, you need to ask:

1. How will the place be used?

2. Are these the right uses for the area? Is there a mix of accommodation that reflects the needs and aspirations of the local community?

3. Does the development provide (or is it close to) community facilities, such as a school, park, play areas, shops, pubs or cafés?

4. Are the right uses in the right places?

5. How will open spaces be used privately and publicly? Are they designed to accommodate these uses?

6. Is there a tenure mix that reflects the needs of the local community?