After a week that has reaffirmed the vital role of our urban centres, some related thoughts ahead of the National Model Design Code pilots.

With a decision due next week, it will be intriguing to see which 10 projects are selected to pilot the National Model Design Code (NMDC): a welcome innovation by MHCLG to trial the draft model code in live situations, testing theory through feedback from the front line. Having helped to prepare an EoI to run a pilot for a Local Authority here in the North West, OPEN (Optimised Environments Ltd) will be interested to see the diversity of the chosen projects and their ability to ‘stress-test’ the potential breadth of application of NMDC.

A liberal approach

When we think of the recent history of design coding in the UK, it is common to think of site-specific, masterplan-led ‘delivery’ codes that help regulate new residential development on greenfield sites. But the draft NMDC signals a much more liberal approach, emphasising that codes are not just to control mono-use, large scale development, but can be applied to pre-existing environments and complex mixed use situations.

Draft NMDC identifies 10 geographical situations – area types - where codes might apply. This indicates potential for expansive use of codes, especially if we were to overlap the planning white paper’s suggested 3-zone system (protection, renewal, growth) across those area types. We will need to become adept at producing codes that are bespoke, applying different objectives, processes, structures and outcomes to each situation.

Some commentators might raise concerns that such diversity presents a challenge to resourcing and skills, or might risk ‘identikit’ codes being applied indiscriminately. But, At OPEN we think that this potential diversity can only be seen as a positive; draft NMDC is inviting us to approach codes innovatively, as tools that can assist myriad situations, and giving Local Authorities the freedom to apply codes with relevance to their priorities.

Urban centres

Nevertheless, within this liberal, diverse approach there is one particular challenge that warrants further consideration; applying design codes to our existing urban centres.

The area types listed in draft NMDC include city, town and local centres – what we could collectively call our ‘urban centres’. These are complex, mixed-use, often specialised places. They will present specific and demanding challenges for design codes;

  • Centres can be unpredictable, ‘messy’ and not always classically beautiful. Each and every centre has a distinctive DNA, a unique evolutionary story and pattern of ownership. The type, extent and speed of development possible varies significantly between them at any given time.
  • Since the turn of the century, we have seen first-hand the multiple forces of change that influence the form, function and viability of our centres. Within the myriad agents of change, national or global trends often undermine locally driven needs or aspirations.
  • Centres are ‘owned’ by all sectors of our communities. They are the focal point; the economic and spatial heart, shaping our identities and sense of belonging. These are deep and often intangible elements of place that evolve organically through the actions, outlook and opinions of multiple and diverse groups.
    These volatile and often intangible factors might seem incompatible with the conditions needed to create a design code, and might even suggest that change in urban centres is not ‘codeable’ at all.

Code as language, not regulation

Our existing urban centres will present tricky challenges for design codes, but with the right approach they could be effective. Whilst detailed, masterplan-led ‘regulatory’ type codes might be difficult to apply (unless a centre includes a large, comprehensive development opportunity), codes can still be relevant if approached as strategic briefing tools, more so than detailed, delivery tools.

Codes for urban centres will, like all other codes, need to be led by clear vision and principles. But, given the particular context and condition, these codes will likely be more valuable if they avoid prescriptive parameters and focus instead on establishing a looser placemaking framework. Process, too, will be vital: founded on collaborative preparation, focussed on clear and simple expression to help universal understanding, and being capable of updating where needed as conditions change.

In short, codes for urban centres should be agile and flexible: a catalyst of change that aims to enable the development process, not simply control it.

This means approaching the idea of ‘code’ more in its meaning as ‘language’ than ‘regulation’: something that provides decision makers, land owners, communities and investors with a common language that prompts and inspires good design decisions over time, without fixing narrow rules that risk becoming obsolete or counter-productive.

Part of a holistic Town Plan?

This approach doesn’t need to result in something generic or passive. Approached with the right balance, and with NPPF support, codes for urban centres can be focussed and proactive. We might come to think of these more as a ‘catalyst codes’ or a ‘place codes’ (rather than ‘design codes’) in order to reflect their strategic, catalytic purpose.

It is interesting to reflect on this in this immediate post-Budget phase. There have been many Local Authorities who have prepared Town Investment Plans and/or Future High Street Fund submissions over the past year in response to funding opportunities. Such documents have created solid platforms for investment and have defined key projects. They have also driven the formation of Town Deal Boards - diverse stakeholder steering groups.

In locations where this has been achieved, design codes have the potential to build on that established platform - providing coherent, centre-wide design principles within which anticipated investment and key projects could be realised and coordinated, and helping to ensure that ‘bigger picture’ design issues, opportunities and contributions are not ignored or lost through piecemeal delivery of projects.

This would see a design code becoming part of a holistic ‘Town Plan’, giving it further foundation, relevance and credibility (and potentially using the Town Deal Board structure as a vehicle for collaboration, consultation and administration).

In this context, it was interesting to see draft NMDC published only a few days before ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’, a report from the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group commissioned to ‘rethink and re-energise’ efforts to develop town centres in Scotland. One of that report’s key recommendations is the local production of town centre plans – or, simply, ‘Town Plans’ – that set out a holistic approach to coordination of spatial planning, design and delivery. Very much the sort of approach within which design codes can play a key role.


Draft NMDC suggest that codes will soon become more widespread, and weighted through a revised NPPF. This is an opportunity to be taken wisely, with particularly careful application in urban centres. We have a responsibility to approach codes with intelligence - applied to be truly responsive to their location / development context, with clear understanding of their role, and with a coherence and simplicity that makes them practical, useable and effective tools.

In our urban centres, codes can be catalytic tools that are focussed more on establishing a common language than setting hard and fast parameters, but with an authority that can elevate the priority we give to coordinated placemaking and design quality.

In all the noise and debate around urban centres over the past decade, one thing seems certain: that their futures will likely evolve around their social, as much as their commercial role. This in turn needs us to focus on and enhance those spatial attributes that can augment the shift –improving legibility, improving liveability, and heightening attractiveness and conviviality at the human scale and pedestrian pace. Applied with skill and balance, and through collaborative process, this is exactly what design codes can help achieve.