With rising staff and client numbers, an office in London and operating nationwide, Adam Murray, founder of Sheffield-based Urbana Town Planning, tells Jill Theobald of the firm’s plans for the city’s future development – and why his beloved home must not settle for ‘reyt’ and instead strive for ‘great’

“I’m a planner but I’d rather call myself an urbanist – I’m involved in this because I love cities.”

It’s not long into our Zoom interview that Adam Murray’s love for cities, and Sheffield in particular, emerges.

The Sheffield-born MD of Urbana studied planning at the University of Sheffield, with a year abroad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign … which is where the company name comes from.

“Life since then has been mostly in the UK but a lot in the US, too,” said Adam, chatting from Urbana’s HQ at Steel City House – itself reminiscent of New York’s iconic Flatiron building.  “I have a lot of love for Chicago, where I spent most of my time and my friends live, but also New York and the west coast.

“The US has been a big influence on me, but not as much as my home city. Sheffield is where my heart is, I am a big United fan and my family have been here for generations! A city getting better is really important to me and that’s why I became a planner in the first place – being interested in the urban environment and built environment and thinking, ‘there’s a lot I love about Sheffield but there’s a lot we can improve’. So how do we make it a better, more prosperous city while not leaving anyone behind? If you’re going to make an area great, then everyone should be involved.”

Despite describing Chicago and Sheffield as ‘apples and oranges’, Adam acknowledges some similarities. “Chicago may have skyscrapers, but it’s the great sustainable urban neighbourhoods that excite me. All interconnected by the El/L – their Supertram – and all designed to house all amenities and services and that’s a similar feeling in Sheffield with your Broomhills, Sharrows and Nether Edges.

“But as someone who is always looking at urban areas and how we can improve these, the differences are obviously huge, and it’s in the attitude. America is very much a ‘go get it’ kind of a place. The UK is increasingly, but Sheffield has always tended to be a bit embarrassed – we’re happy with what we’ve got.

“The associated phrase is ‘Be reyt’ – but for me, while that’s cute and comforting, it’s not good enough for the city. Being reyt is being average, not striving for the best and at Urbana we want to turn ‘be reyt’ into ‘be great’!

“That might sound cheesy, no doubt – but it’s something for me personally which Sheffield needs to take on. You look at every index on deprivation, employment and unemployment levels of the core UK cities and Sheffield is at the bottom. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great city, but it’s certainly not performing at the level it needs to be, we’re not quite there.

“That attitude of ‘settling’ is something we need to challenge, and I think we are – things are changing. Over the last five years or so, people are saying ‘we love this city so let’s do things right – how we can do things better?’ That’s something we strive for.”

This ambitious approach is rooted in Adam’s professional background.

Post university, temping at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council in development control gave him firm foundations in planning.

“But it didn’t really excite me – I knew I wanted to be on the other side of the fence working with the people putting the plans together.”

That opportunity came along with Harworth Group which, in 2007, was UK Coal with a property division, Harworth Estates. The Harworth Group today lead on high profile projects including Waverley and the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP) in Rotherham. When Adam worked in the estates division, he and his colleagues were tasked with ‘40,000 acres of land that used to be part of the old mining fabric of the north and Midlands – exploring different sites and what might be appropriate for delivering development and trying to deliver jobs’.

Harworth was ‘a great place to be…it was where my career really started to take off, but it still wasn’t what I wanted – I always wanted my own thing’.

Adam partnered with Coda Architecture to create Coda Planning in 2013, a very successful partnership that lasted six years.

“By this time, I’d built a planning team around me, but we were still often seen more widely as an add-on,” explains Adam. “Planning consultancy sometimes is seen this way in the industry, but that undermines its importance, makes it feel like policy analysis sat at the side of what’s actually going on.”

It was time to establish Urbana – ‘based on the kind of values we believed in’.

“Over the first year we really did that – we started working with Sheffield Hallam University which has been absolutely fantastic to be involved in such huge sites and working with partners like BDP Architects to see how we can make these areas absolutely pop!

“The work we’re doing on the City Centre Masterplan is just phenomenal and going to make such a difference, particularly the entrance coming up the hill on Howard Street from the station.

“Projects like that really drove us and we’ve come to the point where it’s time to grow again. Over the last few months, we’ve been sitting down together – on Zoom and Teams obviously! – and talking about what does Urbana believe in?

“We all got into this because we love cities and want to make them better. We love development but we want schemes that drive a thriving economy and make people want to be in the city. We want neighbourhoods where people are within a community rather than soulless estates in suburbs. We want to provide that different aspiration.”

Boosting the current growth curve is the promotion of Charles Dunn to director (‘he’s gone through the ranks. He’s a phenomenal urbanist’), and two more recruits have started this year, with another joining in June – all with that Urbana passion.

“That’s where our values stem from,” says Adam. “We believe in communities, inclusivity, the green agenda – and into the centre of all that comes great design. I don’t see ourselves as a planning consultancy looking at policy analysis – we’re urbanists who want to create and work on great projects for a better city.

“That means we need to work with clients with the same values, in the public or private sector, who believe in the need to do things in a more sustainable and inclusive way. That includes anything from how we look after our elderly in terms of accommodation to the LGBT community and other minority groups. We also have to have to work out how we can live more sustainably and more green. We have to take all those things coming at us in the wider world and understand how they work in a community so we can design for them and make them better for everyone.

“That’s our vision – we’re not there yet, but we’re honing it. Over the next year, I just see more and more schemes coming forward that we’re going to be really proud of.”

Planning, projects, and office life post COVID – an Urbana update

Back in our October issue, we chatted about town planning trends during and post COVID when Adam told us there was a ‘great appetite for Sheffield’ and described the need for the social side to office life as ‘critical’ post-COVID. Here he updates us: 

“We meet new clients in London – all the developers and investors who are very similar to us in terms of what they want to do – and who say, ‘Is there anything happening in Sheffield for us?’ And we say, ‘Of course there is!’ We have a lot of projects in early stages, not yet in the public arena, but there’s a lot going on.

“A lot has progressed since October, too – Godwin Developments is now submitted with the council. The proposal is beautifully designed by Bond Bryan, and we’ve got a perfect location for a build to rent scheme. It has lots of communal areas and amenities onsite, but it’s also slap bang in the city and Sheffield needs more people in its centre – the more people, the more vitality.

“With the impact of lockdown and the pandemic on people’s mental health, the last 12 months has been an absolute nightmare on every level. The first instinct of being human is to be with people, to create relationships and have communication – but we’ve not been allowed to do that.

“From an office perspective, here we have the standard COVID protocols like QR door codes and lateral flow testing to allow people back in office over coming months, we want to give that option – for people who want to be social and safely around others. A few of us are back but we’re spread out and it’s been much better for my mental health and has done me the power of good.

“People understand there’s the need for communication and camaraderie in office life – how companies deal with that means gone are the days of banking people in rows and clocking in and out. Flexibility is key – you can be in these nice spaces with people, but it’s understood we can work from home if needed. But I don’t see the development side dropping off with new office buildings – Sheffield has a huge under-provision anyway and I see more and more of that on the way.