King Charles’ legacy: We should harness his design philosophy for our wider benefit.
With Charles now King his ability to exert influence on the built environment is now substantially reduced, so what can we learn from his philosophy and who will champion his principles into the future?
Never before has a monarch been so interested in the built environment, with such strongly held views on traditional approaches in the design of buildings and urban environments. Over the years they have been dismissed as nostalgic, ignorant, and irrelevant by many, but through the passage of time and with fresh eyes post-pandemic, it is striking how mainstream much of it has now become. With his accession to the throne, King Charles’ capacity as monarch for expressing such views publicly will be severely restricted. So, what can we learn from his philosophy and who will champion his principles into the future?
As Prince of Wales, Charles was well known for his environmental activism and strong views on architecture, intervening in several major planning decisions including the former Chelsea Barracks. In 1984 he made headlines by expressing pointed views on modernism in a speech delivered for the 150th anniversary of the RIBA. The Prince’s Foundation was established to teach and demonstrate the principles of traditional urban design which put people, communities and nature at the centre of the design process. He is perhaps best known for being instrumental in the creation of the village of Poundbury on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, an experiment in New Urbanism.
In a 2014 article, he took the opportunity to explain why he believed traditional approaches to be so important in the design of urban environments – the reasons for which, he said, had too often been mis-understood. He wrote:
At the conclusion of his article he then provides a list of what might today be considered the accepted principles of sustainable development, including: developments should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy; buildings should relate to human proportions to minimise opportunities for isolation and fragmentation; provide enclosure to encourage walking and feel safer; achieving communal benefits through density; flexibility to accommodate change; and putting the pedestrian at the centre of the design process.
His views clearly go way beyond the specifics of architectural styling (of which Poundbury is commonly critiqued for) and represent a serious attempt to tackle the challenges of urban growth. These principles today feel entirely mainstream; take a look at the National Design Guide for instance. His principles are commonplace in the text of modern Local Plans, setting policy and masterplanning expectations for new developments up and down the country. It makes one wonder whether he was in fact ahead of his time when it comes to the built environment.
That these principles are now reflected in everyday planning shows that it needn’t be difficult nor require lofty aspiration or deep pockets to achieve good quality design. But policy itself won’t deliver well designed places. With his capacity as monarch to express views publicly now substantially reduced, it means that built environment professionals will require a solid understanding of these principles in order to advocate and deliver these objectives for our wider benefit.