top of page
Town Centre & Urban Design Burland Aura


Town centre design

Defines the design outcomes you want to achieve when commissioning urban design teams for town centre planning work. Here’s how we help you achieve a town centre urban design that delights all who use it.

How aura planning can help with the urban design of a town centre

Urban design for town centres aims to create a thriving heart to the community a centre serves. However, urban design teams can struggle to define exactly what this ‘thriving heart’ looks like. There is an assumption that the current consultation process and design approach will lead to a town centre that satisfies. Very often though, it disappoints the public it is meant to delight.

We believe the issue is in the consultation phase. Currently there are few, if any, tools for helping us identify, define and then describe exactly what qualities a town centre needs in order to satisfy its users. The Q and A approach doesn’t delve into the very personal feelings that individuals have about a town centre that are formed from their personal experiences, current circumstances and aspirations for the future. Consequently, the exact qualities that would make a ‘thriving’ town centre urban design have to be predicted by the design team. There is often a disconnect between this prediction and user expectation. This is what leads to disappointment. 

Some examples of these frustrations are bulk and massing in relation to conservation of valuable historic buildings and places, traffic engineering and the pedestrian environment (its vitality, safety and air quality), the visual environment (impact of scale and massing), housing needs for key workers, employment opportunities, the diversity of retail on the high street and a general landscape with insufficient urban trees and parks.

Town Centres are by definition the centre of the wider populated areas they serve. The two interact and neither can be considered in isolation. Density versus the wider distribution of local public services - local food shopping, healthcare and education services, public versus private transport, market versus social housing - are typical areas where friction occurs. 

So, there is nothing straightforward about town centre planning and it needs many professional services to work together to develop and deliver proposals. However, the volumes of paperwork generated is generally inaccessible for normal people getting on with their busy lives. This is often interpreted as apathy, lack of interest or the public simply not knowing what they want until they are shown it. There is a need for a process that cuts through this complexity and begins by setting out to discover what will build delight in a town centre and then capturing this in a brief all can understand and agree. 

The Aura Planning process begins by finding the aura people are looking for in the town centre. We talk, one to one, with a representative cross section of the people involved. This is not consultation with groups or surveys in Q and A formats. It is a very personal but non-intrusive investigation that collects immediate perceptions about the town centre’s atmosphere. We then compare these to identify common threads about each phase of contact with the centre: the entering, the being in the town centre and the light, sound and air qualities desired at different moments and during different activities. 

The outcome is an Aura Plan - a brief for the built environment that will be the permanent backdrop, nurturing the atmospheres the town centre needs to generate.  This serves to focus the different professionals creating the new town centre urban plan by giving them a clear purpose. It does not disrupt or delay the technical processes that must be allowed to run its course. What it does do is make clear to all what outcome the users of the town centre want. 

Why Burland Aura Planning for town centre urban design

James Burland is an architect who, over a career designing a wide range of different buildings, felt the building user wasn’t getting enough say. Although users were often consulted, they were not encouraged to share the mood they wanted a building to give them. 

The permanent design features of a town centre all influence the way visitors will feel. All good architects can create moods through design. But they need to know what mood you are after! Those moods will be different where you are in relation to the centre, and the areas it serves, and what people want to do in the town centre.

James encountered mood specification when designing large sports stadiums where the spectator’s experience is crucial and carefully planned. The interplay of light, sound and air creates a spatial experience that differs depending on whether you are approaching, entering, moving through or stopping to do something, and whether you are alone or with others.

He researched the published research on the area on a masters degree at Cambridge University and developed the Burland Aura Planning process. He has subsequently applied it to the town centre planning for Guilford and found the team  relieved to have found a way of discovering the feeling users wanted from their centre.

Who we work with

  • Planning departments when writing policy for the masterplanning of town centres and seeking a public consultation process designed to discover local needs and the atmospheric considerations that often frustrate residents 

  • Property developers who want to work with a town’s community and its planning authority 

  • Residents and their Neighbourhood Action Groups that want to integrate their needs that have a bearing on the town centre - not least the physical connections - for example, the environmental impact or the modes of transport supported

  • Hotels, Resorts and Tourism operators that need a brief on how to safely develop tourism in relation to precious buildings and public places 

  • Retail organisations who seek clarity and reliability in the handling of planning issues that relate to their presence and success in the town centre.


Aura Planning for a Town Centre

IMG_1542 (1).JPG

Town centres are often planned in a very focused way without taking into account the whole area which makes it a centre. The aura planning process combines the atmospheres of the surrounding neighbourhoods with the aura of the town centre itself. Its open approach invites all parties even if they are in complete conflict with each other. In fact the conflict improves the ultimate result. Aura planning runs in parallel to the highly complex maze of professional skills needed for town planning. Where there are potential gaps in the conventional process, due to politics or financial constraints, aura planning ensures that there is continuity in the objective, even if that objective needs to be updated within the aura planning process.

Photo Credit: James Burland


"We like the idea of starting from a search for how townsfolk and visitors to find what will enhance Guildford's feel-good atmosphere" 

Chairman of The Guildford Society

Interested in working together?

How does aura planning work for urban planning town centre design?

Aura Planning gathers together the preferences of each group involved in the planning, design and use of the town centre, then identifies common ground so agreement can be reached. This becomes a brief both planners and users can use to talk to architects and other professionals about what you want. Once you receive design proposals, you can use the aura planning brief to check they will achieve what you want of the project and continue to use them to keep the project on track to delivered the desired aura outcomes.

What outcomes can aura planning achieve for town centre planning and design?

  • Give users a real say in the town centre so they are more likely to be delighted with the result 

  • Clarity about the thing that is hardest to define, yet is the most important aspect of urban town planning design, the feeling you want it to give the people who use it 

  • Definition of the right range of atmospheres you need the town centre to provide

  • Agreement about what all those involved want

  • Clear direction for all members of the design team

  • Seeing potential in a town centre in a shared way

  • Identifying what you value most in a town centre so you can prioritise the investment 

When to talk to us about urban planning and town centre design?

The earlier you discover and define your user, commissioner, designer and building professionals’ preferences for your town centre, the easier it will be to get buy in from all parties, including residents and councillors. So get in touch to hear how aura planning can speed the process and improve the final outcome of your town centre urban development project.        

bottom of page