Over the past decade there has been increasing concern about the types of new developments that have been created in our cities. There has been growing recognition that urban sprawl is both unattractive and dysfunctional: somewhere along the way we lost the ability to create real “places” that have their own unique character and sense of identity and settled instead for soulless McMansions rolled out across a denuded landscape. At the same time there has been a slowly emerging understanding that it is not possible to create communities which are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable unless they are underpinned by good urban design.
But if this is the case, who is responsible for ensuring that we move in this direction and what must be done to achieve it?
Councils have always had a regulatory role in urban development and are increasingly playing a broader role in urban design issues.
This paper contends that there is also a clear and important governance role for councils in ensuring that the urban developments they approve are attractive, sustainable and work as vibrant, livable places. However this role is generally neither well understood nor acted upon as councillors and senior staff rarely have the knowledge or language to ask the right questions of planners and urban designers or to know whether the answers that have been given will deliver the desired outcomes “on the ground”.
The paper provides a new frame of reference for addressing this issue. It discusses the governance role of councils in ensuring good urban development and illustrates this with examples drawn from a four week study tour of 18 new urbanist developments in the USA undertaken by the author in February/March 2003.