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Thread: Whose role is it anyway? Building the bridge between architects and planners

  1. #1

    Whose role is it anyway? Building the bridge between architects and planners

    Architects and planners share the same passion; to create places. Architects will endeavour to design aesthetic places, while planners aspire to create functional places. Both their roles are integral to the built environment.

    My first encounter with the urban planning profession was through meeting with one of Sydney’s most prominent urban planners while I was completing my final year at High School in 2002. At that stage I had applied to study Bachelor of Planning at UNSW, although I had barely any understanding of the profession, except for its similarities with the SimCity computer game. The key piece of advice I obtained from the meeting was that urban planners are expected to know everything about the building processes, even seemingly insignificant details.

    Since working as an urban planner I have found there is a clear dependency on the profession for advice on many aspects relating to the property industry. However, the departure from planning arises once urban planners start providing design-based advice as this starts to overlap to the role of architects.

    The Divide

    Being in such a competitive industry, architects and urban planners often try emulate each other in the creation of places. Even though the respective university degrees focus on the individual profession, there appears to be a cross-over in their responsibilities. It’s quite an obvious fact but architects are not urban planners, and urban planners are not architects.

    There are two classic examples which demonstrate the inability of these professions to stick to what they are qualified for.

    a. The architect applies for a Development Application (DA) and prepares the relevant plans and also the Statement of Environmental Effects (SEE). A SEE is the report required to be submitted with the application which describes and justifies how the proposal complies with the relevant planning controls.

    b. The Council assessing planner determines a DA and imposes a condition which relates to the design of the building.

    So how can the architect know what to write in the SEE? And how can the Council planner impose a design-based condition? Aren’t these functions contrary to their roles?

    A parallel to this can be found in the medical profession. Would you mind if your dentist provided treatment to your feet instead of a podiatrist? Or even worse, if your podiatrist started pulling your teeth out!

    The similarity between the medical profession and the built environment, is that they are both dealing with similar fields of work. For the dentist and podiatrist it is the body and for the architect and the urban planner it is the built environment. The essential difference is they specialise in different aspects to the subject matter (e.g. a patient or a neighbourhood block of land).

    Surely then, an urban planner is more knowledgeable in the relevant planning controls and can prepare a carefully formulated argument in the SEE. Also, only the architect would have the artistic experience to make a better informed decision on a proposal’s design.

    To properly understand the divide between architects and urban planners let’s start with looking at the respective definitions. Wikipedia defines architecture as;

    “The art and science of designing and erecting buildings and other physical structures. The practice of an architect, where architecture means to offer or render professional services in connection with the design and construction of a building, or group of buildings and the space within the site surrounding the buildings, that have as their principal purpose human occupancy or use.”

    According to Wikipedia urban planning;

    “Integrates land use planning and transportation planning to improve the built, economic and social environments of communities.”

    Seemingly, the role of an architect is to ‘design’, while urban planners are involved in ‘improving’ environments. Wikipedia’s definitions are not far off from the true roles of these pivotal professions responsible for the development of places. So is there a balance to these two roles?

    Urban Designers

    Perhaps urban design is the bridge that connects the skills of architects and planners, and incorporates the two fields into one speciality. On his blog, Kevin Abbot reflected on the informal accreditation given to urban designers.

    “Both landscape and building architects will have no hesitation in calling themselves urban designers. In fact, in Australia the regulation of classifying your urban design credentials is relatively left at your discretion. Unlike, the registration procedures required for architecture, engineering or planning.”

    Nevertheless, UNSW offers a post graduate course on Master of Urban Development and Design and Sydney University runs an Urban Design course. So urban designers can obtain qualifications, although I believe Kevin was also trying to reinforce the notion that the profession itself spreads across various disciplines including architecture and urban planning.

    Are urban designers confused architects and planners? Or do they have the ability to apply design skills with planning policies?


    Dean of the Faculty of the Built Environment (UNSW), Alec Tzannes wrote in his article ‘Educating Architects’ that “the education of the architect, as has probably always been the case, requires exposure to a range of other related disciplines to ensure enough practical knowledge is available to work effectively in a team”. The same holds true with planners and their need to properly understand the functions of other professions working in the same industry.

    There are multi-disciplined consultancies in Australia that provide both architectural and urban planning services. At these types of companies they have a competitive advantage over other small boutique consultancies as all the services are under one roof and discussions on projects can easily be done in boardrooms.

    I recently attended an informal discussion between a group of local architects and the planners of the local Council where I work. My interest in the event was due to being employed at this particular Council and primarily to hear the issues raised by the architects. I was also invited to the event given my role in dealing with architects as the first point of contact for Council’s planning department.

    Overall, I believe it was a successful event which demonstrated a tame and healthy discussion on various planning matters. It provided a platform for the architects to ask questions relating to pressing issues, while Council’s planners had the opportunity to respond appropriately. Clients and DA applicants were not invited which created a more intimate environment for the two professions to productively interact.

    One of the architects identified that Council’s planners need to understand the difficult jobs faced by the architects in their responsibility to their clients. Another mentioned they often feel like the ‘meat in the sandwich’ when it comes to delivering bad news to their clients. I encourage other consultant groups to setup informal events with Councils in the spirit of collaboration.

    While I was working at a multi-disciplined property consultancy prior to my current position, the management decided to encourage staff members from different divisions to attend regular meetings held by other divisions. For example, some of the planners would sit in on meetings held by the social research team, and vice versa.

    Considering the company occupied the entire office floor and there were around 100 staff, it was fairly difficult to know everyone and to understand the roles of each division. Therefore this initiative broke down the barriers of communication to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration.

    For larger companies, this is highly recommended. However, what about for boutique companies and one-man-band consultants? How can they interact to understand the roles of each other’s professions?


    The answer lies with the industry network groups. Become a member of the industry group that represents your profession and attend events. For young professionals there are sub-groups that appropriately cater for you including the Emerging Architects and Graduates Network (EmAGN), Young Planners and Young Developers.

    Here are some popular industry groups that you may wish to join if you haven’t already;

    Australian Institute of Architects

    Housing Industry of Australia

    Property Council of Australia (PCA)

    Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA)

    Real Estate Institute of Australia

    Urban Taskforce

    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA)

    Industry groups from all spectrums of the property industry should be talking to each other. If there are currently dialogues and forums between various groups, that’s fantastic. However, if there are shortfalls that prevent these relationships, then they should be forged and re-connected. Effective knowledge sharing between the various professions working in the built environment is essential to achieving successful sustainable outcomes.

    Overview and Recommendations

    There are evident overlapping of roles between architects and urban planners which can prove to be ineffective in the development of places. Aspects of each other’s roles can cross paths in the instances when an architect is the sole consultant assisting in the preparation of a DA and also when the Council assessing planner makes a decision based on design principles. In my opinion once the professional crosses over the line of their qualification and roles, they should be treading cautiously. Either liaise with a colleague familiar in the field or engage the appropriate consultant who can provide professional assistance.

    Considering the roles are often intertwined it can be difficult to draw a line in the sand. Urban designers are the blend version of architects and urban planners and could become the future profession of building places. Sharing information through collaboration and networking is a vital component to building relationships between other consultants and understanding each other’s responsibilities.

    University courses could offer more engaging teaching methods for students to understand the other disciplines. This could be achieved by offering work experience in both urban planning and architecture organisations.

    Industry groups should share information and join forces when it comes to events to ensure relevant issues are discussed across various disciplines.

  2. #2
    Nov 2010
    Urban design is the link between architecture/landscape-design and planning. An urban designer takes all the higher-level policies and plans and applies them to a specific location. They coordinate the architects, landscape-designers, engineers and other designers to make sure everything is integrated, complete and respects the wishes of all the site’s stakeholders.

    I’m an urban designer with a Planning/Community-design background. I often work with urban designers with architecture and landscape-design backgrounds. They will generally deal with the more detailed design (materials, sidewalk design, architectural themes etc.) while I deal with the larger scale design issues (building placement, road network, density).

  3. #3
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
    Jan 2005
    Hang on Sloopy...land
    Well engineers design the bridge which spans the gap... so I am going to go with that.
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

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