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Innovating urban design

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Picture of the PEARL building façade
The PEARL façade in an autumn evening

Last week, it was announced that PEARL is one of the finalists in the National Urban Design Awards 2021 in the Innovation Category. You can see the details of all the finalists at ( This is great because it shows that PEARL's intent to help create ever better equitable sustainable urban design has already been recognised. The other finalists are also really exciting and when taken together this shows that innovation in urban design is well and thriving in the UK.

PEARL is innovative because it moves urban design beyond the norm in three distinctive ways. First, PEARL enables us to study exactly what the functionality of urban design needs to be in relation to people, and how this can be maximised, by studying how people respond to different aspects of the design under different conditions. Secondly, PEARL allows us to study in depth the needs of people for particular features in urban design by enabling us to see in detail how their body and brain respond to different designs and conditions. Thirdly, PEARL allows us to study the effects of aesthetics - the multisensory world that we perceive - on the way we act in urban space, because PEARL enables us to mix different sensory experiences under controlled conditions.

This is crucial for making the urban experience truly accessible to everyone, and moving it beyond the present assumptions about what is needed - and particularly about what should not be done - which are sometimes based on prejudice, ignorance or simply assumptions based on old-fashioned ideas of what is necessary or "all that is allowed to be done". PEARL allows us to test ideas that are perhaps 'crazy but might work' under controlled conditions so that we can provide robust evidence about what actually happens when people are confronted with such an idea and how they might engage with it. Good ideas will be able to win out and poor ideas identified - and we will be able to understand why that is in both cases on the basis of robust evidence, so that improvements can be made. This enables progress in urban design to be both better-suited to the needs of everyone, and faster to implement in practice, and this is good news for us all, whatever our capabilities, responsibilities or preferences.

But there is a fourth way in which PEARL is innovative. The solar panels on the roof take advantage of the large roof area of the building. The energy they deliver provides energy to power the whole of the PEARL activity, the rest of the neighbouring industrial park where PEARL is located and to supply the national grid. On balance this means that we 'export' about two thirds of the energy delivered by the solar panels. Between May and mid-October 2021, we have saved almost 70 tonnes of carbon and we have 'planted' the equivalent of 3,179 trees. But the main innovation here is that we saw that our capability to generate such energy, because of the size of the building necessary to carry out our research, was far in excess of our own need for energy, so that we could therefore set up a means to distribute that energy to other beneficiaries, as a way of distributing the carbon savings amongst others. Other buildings may not be able to retrieve as much energy, because of their design for their needs, or maybe simply because they were designed in an era when solar panels could not be imagined. Thinking about such local energy conversion and distribution from renewable sources is indeed an innovation that local communities could think about - by not treating each building as its own private energy producer-consumer, but seeing the advantages of a more collective approach within a local area, enables us to capitalise on the benefits that some buildings within the community can provide. We had to work very hard to enable this to happen because the UK legislation is not set up to accommodate such an approach. Maybe other buildings could provide other communal benefits... Potentially this could change the way we see entities such as neighbourhoods, communities and society as a way of living sustainably and equitably in the future. This would really need a change in the law to make such approaches easier to implement. That would be very innovative indeed!

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