1 February 2021

Urban Design Project puts people at the heart of design

“Using a character-centred approach allowed us to take a step back as designers and instead view the project site through the eyes of its everyday users,” said MLA student Vicky Tantum on her group work for the Urban Design Project.

Student work from the Urban Design Project shows how character studies are used throughout the whole design process

“This led to more purposeful and focused design choices, as each character highlighted different aspects of the urban realm important to their everyday lives.”

Landscape Architecture students taking the MA/MLA Urban Design Project have been using ‘character-centred design’ as the basis for their transformation of Kelham Island, Sheffield.

By defining a group of diverse characters, who live in their chosen site, students are able to respond to the needs of local residents and create places where people want to live.

Led by Drs Kevin Thwaites and James Simpson, the module encourages students to focus on the processes that underpin their design – the daily routines and interactions of their characters, for example – instead of concentrating solely on the end product.

“The reason that’s quite important is that most of the current professional planning and design fraternity don’t do that,” Kevin says.

“What they do is they tend to focus on making the material product – whether it’s a building or a street or an urban square – and then assume that the human activity that needs to go on there will just magically slot in to place. And it doesn’t, very often,” he adds.

“What students suddenly realise is that, actually, there is a social health agenda behind the decisions that they make and it’s not just about making pretty buildings and interesting looking stuff; they’re really impacting on people’s quality of life.”


“Once they’ve actually got into the mindset of people that they feel are genuinely a part of that context then it has a very, very dramatic effect on the way that they work.”

Dr Kevin Thwaites

Urban Design Project module lead


“I think that’s one of the reasons why we put the emphasis on students creating these fictitious characters, because rather than come at it from their own predisposed education as landscape professionals, they have to put themselves in the mind set of ordinary people.”

“Once they’ve actually got into the mindset of people that they feel are genuinely a part of that context then it has a very, very dramatic effect on the way that they work.”

To visualise their final designs, students create intricately detailed scale models.

 “My favourite part of the module,” adds Vicky, “was developing our microenvironment design ideas into 1:20 scale models. The heightened scale brought to life aspects of a design that can be easily overlooked at larger scales, modelling tiny details such as teacups.”

Despite having to adapt to new ways of working, due to the UK national lockdown, Kevin says he was hugely impressed with what students managed to achieve.

“The fact that all this year’s groups managed to face up to and overcome these challenges with the imagination and enthusiasm demonstrated is a remarkable achievement in itself.” 

“That we also saw work delivered of a quality that would rival anything produced in ‘normal’ times is little short of miraculous and is a testament to the outstanding determination and creativity displayed by the ‘class of 2020’.”

Student work by: Amber Norman, Vicky Tantum, Ed Etheridge, Zoe Dobson, Olivia Conway, Katherine Pears, Sarah Craft, Eva Coley, Rama Salkar, Chu Peng, Fanglin Yang, Jiayu Zhu, Yanni Chen, Hang Xu

Socio-Spatial Urbanism Unit