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Pinpointing the value of urban activity

New – but familiar – urban realm valuation tools could enable highways engineers to better understand the value of quality public realm and support more informed decision-making for local politicians and investors

Brian Fitzpatrick

Traditions of high quality engineering could, it can be argued, be more concerned with function than form. The result, in many cases, is well-engineered infrastructure that often fails to consider the wider implications of how it contributes to the aesthetic environment and the wider public realm.

A recent breakfast briefing at New London Architecture brought together developers and local authority senior officers to debate this issue, particularly in relation to new tools being developed to better articulate the potential value of public realm – be it the quality of its built form, accessibility, security, health and/or impact on surrounding development value – thereby monetising the debate around investment. 

This is particularly pertinent given the current financial constraints, which risk a reversal in the progress made in recent years in the delivery of high quality public realm. Is there an opportunity to establish a more sustainable approach to investing in public realm improvements? And should this approach be based on a central premise that ‘the road is not the customer’ but should instead be viewed as a one element of the public realm that should not absorb all of its resources, or dominate the form of our urban environment? 

It’s clear that we need to better understand the relationship between increases in land and amenity value following urban realm investment and development, so that we can provide tools enabling a more focused dialogue between local authorities and potential development partners. To this aim, EC Harris has developed a tool that measures asset deterioration over long periods of time, as well as the ‘value’ of  improvement or remedial interventions in a wider context.  This tool is able to support public realm investment decisions or comparisons. We agree that the orthodoxy of roads infrastructure dominating the urban realm in terms of both form and function needs to be challenged, but we want to bring this about in a way that highways engineers are happy with. We call our approach evolution, not revolution.

A useful decision-making tool

As an engineer who has also been a senior officer client, a consultant and an elected councillor for local authorities, I have a rounded perspective on the pressures faced by authorities, and on how the public realm is funded. At EC Harris we have been using an asset valuation platform for some time to value the highways estate for strategic roads authorities. To comply with Treasury guidelines, the depreciated replacement value of inter-urban routes has to be calculated and accounted for.

Alongside this, the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) initiative (which aims to produce a set of consolidated financial accounts for the UK public sector on commercial accounting principles), required that local authorities evaluate the depreciated replacement cost for roads. From a business perspective, I was aware that our platform would be very useful for local authorities. We could clearly see a relationship between the amenity value of the public realm and the fact that value is derived in part to the fact that it is maintained by highways engineers, who are mainly focused on the road. 

At this point, we began to look at a public realm valuation tool being developed by Transport for London (TfL), and organised knowledge-sharing sessions. So, although we developed our approach to valuing the public realm in isolation from TfL, we’re now testing ways of using elements of the TfL toolkit (the categories) together with our platform to develop a key strategic decision support tool for urban realm investment.

Some enlightened local authorities do consider roads in terms of their amenity value to their users. But the value of the public realm for those who live near the road, or who would like to see different types of infrastructure in place, is not accounted for in any efficient way at the moment.

Brian Fitzpatrick is Head of Highways,

EC Harris

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