Interview | Weaving design and placemaking into better infrastructure – New Civil Engineer

01 Mar, 2021 By Claire Smith
Over the last 12 months we have seen the catchphrases “build back better” and “build, build, build” added to the construction industry’s vocabulary. The focus is very much on delivering projects faster, greener and financially leaner than ever before but where does design and placemaking fit in?
According to National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) design group chair Sadie Morgan (above, right) and NIC design group member Madeleine Kessler (above, left), they should be a central part of every project.
It is a year on from the launch of the NIC’s Design Principles for National Infrastructure (see box). Now, infrastructure owners and developers are being urged not to lose sight of design in the rush to deliver on government promises.
Creating infrastructure that lifts our sprits is so very important
“I think well designed infrastructure gives places a sense of identity,” says Morgan. “If you think about the great infrastructure projects of the day, they really do say something about our national identity, and they reflect the places that they’re within.
“Projects shouldn’t just mitigate but should have a relationship with their surroundings and enhance them.”
Morgan and Kessler point out that placemaking within infrastructure is nothing new – Joseph Bazalgette achieved it with the Victoria Embankment and London’s sewer system. 
The benefit of that project is being mirrored today by Tideway. New public spaces will be the most visible outcome from the supersewer project that will supplement Bazalgette’s system. 
It is the dual purpose opportunities that infrastructure creates that the NIC’s design principles aim to harness.
“I think Japan is really interesting in how it looks at infrastructure in terms of placemaking,” says Kessler. “Cities like Tokyo are densely populated with little outdoor space, so pieces of infrastructure become an excuse for a park. You might have a sewage treatment plant with a park on top or I have seen sea walls doubled up as allotment space.”
But aside from creating new amenities, the design of infrastructure can also influence how you feel when using it.
“That sense of joy is something that we often forget,” explains Morgan. “Creating infrastructure that lifts our sprits is so very important but so is making places where we feel safe. We need to think harder about how our infrastructure improves air quality, health and wellbeing.”
There is much to gain from considering placemaking during the design stages but there are also considerable barriers to making it happen.
Kessler believes that no one really takes responsibility for design in infrastructure and everyone assumes someone else will do it. But she insists that the whole supply chain has a responsibility.
Morgan adds: “We have to start engaging so much better with our infrastructure. We do it in our homes and residential developments but infrastructure really has a long way to go to really understand how to engage meaningfully. 
“It is not just going, ‘here’s what I designed, do you like it’? We need to engage much earlier to embed [local input] within the design process so you’ll end up with infrastructure that works so much better for the people that it is intended for.”
Kessler adds: “There is a deep rooted perception among industry professionals, that design adds to cost and contributes to time delays. But there is a whole series of case studies which prove that there was a lot of evidence to the contrary.
“We need to get over the disconnect between the decision makers and the design industry and get everyone centred on the same page. 
“We all want this piece of infrastructure to really work and how do we align these values and how do we sort of guide everyone along the process?”
Morgan and Kessler both believe the NIC Design Principles hold the key and are urging the industry to use them to make a difference. 
The Design Principles for National Infrastructure were set out by the NIC’s design group early last year to drive industry improvements.
 The principles are split into four categories of climate, people, place and value, and give practical support to bringing good design to each one. They cover the following:
Last year NCE joined forces with the NIC’s design group at the British Construction Industry Awards to launch the inaugural NIC Design Principles Award to celebrate projects that were already putting some of the principles into action.
The winner was the Leeds Footbridge for the Climate Innovation District, which was commissioned by CITU and architecturally designed by Gagarin Studio and DP Squared.
“There is nothing better than holding up projects that do things well and to feel like we are improving as a sector,” explains Morgan.

Leeds Footbridge for the Climate Innovation district: Winner of the 2020 NIC Design Principles Award at the British Construction Industry Awards
Morgan says that what impressed the judging team about the Leeds scheme was that it was doing “more with less”. “It responded to the questions around climate with a really simple design that actually looks very beautiful and fits within its context,” she says. 
“[The design was] thinking about the longer lifespan by using a single material that weathers and doesn’t need a lot of maintenance.” 
Morgan says that it also underlines the fact that good infrastructure doubles up – it is taking people across the river, but is also taking pipes for a district heating system across too. The other plus for the scheme was that is proved that small projects can demonstrate good design as well as major ones.
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