Sunday, April 26th, 2009
TED Talks are all the rage these days. This one has been making the rounds, but if you haven’t seen it, I suggest watching as it is only six minutes long. Jacek Utko talks about how how he dramatically boosted newspaper circulation simply through a re-design (if the embedded video doesn’t show for you, click this link):
This video is a testament to the power of design. While there has certainly been a fetishization of “design” in recent years, I don’t think there is any doubt that quality of design can play a huge role in the success or failure of something. For example, today it is difficult to differentiate many products based on features and functions. Design is the distinguishing element and can command a premium price in the market. Apple provides the best common example of this today. Their products not only look good, but their interaction design is top notch making them supremely easy to use and inspirational to those who purchase them.
It should come as no surprise that design has whole-heartedly been embraced in many cities. This is particularly manifest in the urge to commission international “starchitects” to design major civic structures. Cities are desperate for the so-called “Bilbao effect” to rejuvenate their image and their neighborhoods. This has led to a dramatic upgrading of the civic infrastructure in many cities if nothing else, and the exposure of many to the entire idea of quality architecture for the first time. This has its downsides to be sure, which I’ll cover in a future posting, but I think has generally been a positive.
However, there are some limits to this as applied to cities. Two things jump quickly to mind:
- Good design can’t fix a broken business model. It would be tempting to think that if we simply redesigned our newspapers, print journalism’s problems would be solved. It is notable that the example above is in Eastern Europe, not the United States where the migration to on-line and obsolete business and journalism models could mean the virtual disappearance of the printed newspaper in short order. Most US papers could certainly stand a make over, but I don’t think re-design and nothing else is the answer. Similarly for cities, if you are economically failing, design as defined by the newspaper example can be part of the solution, but not the entire solution.
- Design today is overly concerned with the physical appearance and functionality of products. It is notable that Burnham and Bennett of “Plan of Chicago” fame were both architects. Today it is architects who are often asked to re-imagine the urban fabric. But while they might be able to create attractive renderings, why would we expect people whose training and experience is focused on buildings and spaces to be able to somehow recreate and re-imagine the city or neighborhood as a whole? There are no doubt many architects that do have this skill, but again, architecture is only a piece of the puzzle.
Cities are very different from iPods, buildings, streets, etc. Those are part of the city, but they aren’t the city.
Here are some other differences between a city and a typical design project:
- The lack of top-down control. Note with our newspaper designer, the top guy gave him authority to redesign it, and he was able to do what he liked. In a city, however, while there may be a mayor, decisions about even the built environment take place in a political process with many stakeholders.
- Diversity vs. unity. As the above implies, a product, building, etc. expresses a unity, but cities are made up of a vast number of residents, businesses, visitors, associations and relationships, many of which relate only tangentially and which often have goals and objectives that are in conflict. I’ve said before that it is actually this conflict which creates the power of the city. A city that expressed too much of a design unity would be a failure, no matter how much short term economic success it might have. A city is a sort of permeable container in which people create their own lives and meanings. This is a very different sort of beast than most design problems. Designers and planners tend to dislike things that get in the way of their vision. Jacek Utko suggests empowering designers. But empowering people who constitutionally don’t like it when other people get in the way of their visions can be a dangerous thing.
- The limitations of human control. In line with the above, design in an urban context is an inherently more uncertain proposition. As I noted previously when speaking of the errors that have plagued so much urban design and planning, our ability to shape the outcome in a complex system is much less than in a more “cause and effect” type situation. Designers, architects, and engineers create buildings, products, newspapers, etc. and they come out pretty much the way they are intended. Even so, many of them fail to achieve their desired effects. How much more so in a very complex, living environment like a city?
True urban design, shaping our cities to achieve its civic aspirations and allow its citizens to create the successful lives for themselves that they want, is a very different problem than what has traditionally been called design, or even urban design. Wikipedia says “Urban design concerns the arrangement, appearance and functionality of towns and cities, and in particular the shaping and uses of urban public spaces” and treats the discipline as a subset of architecture. But I think this is misses the point of what we should look for.
It also highlights that the urban environment is often thought of in terms of discrete systems, designed by specialist practitioners. Some of these are:
- Land use (urban planning)
- Transportation (urban planning, architecture, and engineering)
- Public spaces (architecture)
- Buildings (architecture)
- Education (teachers)
- Parks and recreation (urban planning)
- Population (demographers)
- Jobs and economic growth (economic development)
- Talent attraction (miscelleneous)
- Arts and culture (artists, architects, designers)
- Branding (tourism marketing)
- Tourism and conventions (tourism marketing)
- Fiscal policy (politicians)
- Housing (advcoates, individuals, companies, politicians)
- Heathcare (private sector health professionals, governments)
The list could conceivably go on. These are all facets of making up a city, but they aren’t the city itself. Thinking about the city requires a holistic view that considers all of these, their relationships, their interactions. It’s requires not just depth, but breadth. Thinking about urban design and planning as discrete systems is like thinking of a company as made up of marketing, sales, finance, HR, manufacturing, procurement, R&D, etc. Those are all important and critical functions, but they need to work in concert to support a strategy and viable business model to make money. Having the best finance department in the world means nothing if your business model is broken or your company is paralyzed by inter-departmental infighting.
What we need today is a new discipline of urban design, one that is urban design properly so called, rooted in the following principles.
- The need to understand a city and its civic aspirations, and the understanding that cities, ultimately, are about people.
- A holistic, interdisciplinary view of what is needed to achieve them. It isn’t about any one of the things above, it’s about all of them. It’s about understanding true urban function. It’s bringing a strategic mindset to marshal of them around the aspirations.
- A rich awareness of the complexity of the city and the limitations of design in shaping a complex human society, and the reality of what we can achieve. This includes a healthy dose of humility.
- The need for both top down leadership and bottoms up participation. (This will be the subject of a future posting).
- Confidence in the power of design to make a difference in our cities, which I firmly believe that it can.
- The rallying of expertise in specific domains to translate this into their domain, and to contribute their own unique insights into the result.
Traditional urban design and architecture is of supreme importance, but it is only part of what we need to bring to bear on the problem.
Does this sound familiar? It should. It is what I’ve been talking about and grasping at on this blog for the past 2 1/2 years.
We’re at the dawn of a new era. It is an era of a globalized, networked world and rapid change in many domains and disciplines. And I don’t think we know where this thing is going to take us. Anybody who thinks they’ve got it figured out is kidding themselves.
To be successful in the 21st century will require a very different way of operating than it did in the 20th. We need new techniques and new approaches to problems. This true discipline of urban design is one of them. In line with humility, I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But hopefully I’m at least asking and thinking about some of the right questions.
I’ve honestly been amazed at the readership I’ve managed to gather on this blog. Of course I don’t even know who most of them are. Isn’t the internet wonderful? But I know it includes senior politicians, academics, journalists, architects and designers, economic development folks, students, artists, activists, and many more. I’ve sometimes met and talked with them through the blog. And it is clear that people understand that we’re in a new world, and they are, like all of us, are trying to figure it out. I’m consistently impressed with the seriousness and thoughtfulness of those I come in contact with. It gives me hope and confidence in our future. So a special thanks to all of you, and especially those who have made this one of the most heavily commented urbanist blogs out there, and have helped in shaping and developing both my own thinking and I’m sure those of others about this space.
Who knows where this journey will take me, will take us, will take our cities. But I’m confident that, if we embrace and shape the future, through the power of true urban design among other things, that we can have a future even brighter than our past. I’ve got confidence in America, in the Midwest, in our cities, in our people. I hope you do you. Thank you for coming along on this ride with me.