Sunday, April 26th, 2009

The New Discipline of True Urban Design

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.

Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning

7 Responses to “The New Discipline of True Urban Design”

  1. Stephen Gross says:

    A few thoughts:

    * I agree that we need a culture of urban design that emphasizes understanding the complexity of urban life. The good news is that that field has existed since the 1960’s. It’s called urban studies! :)

    * Urban planning is different from traditional design. You wrote about designers’ common failure to appreciate the rich variety of users and uses that a “designed” site requires. The conflict is between a designer’s desire for a unified aesthetic approach and the multitude of uses that inevitably arise.

    * This very conflict may point the way to a different understanding of urban planning. Jane Jacobs–an idol for many, including me–would argue that the attempt to “design” a large urban space is misguided endeavor. Cities function best when the cooperation and competition between multiple independent actors thrives. Rather than think about designing a space, urban planners should think about crafting rules of engagement that encompass the urban multi-actor “game”. For instance, urban planners can encourage roads of certain widths, or laws requiring multi-modal transit access, or building height limitations. Within these constraints, the city’s residents will compete and cooperate for a variety of purposes.

    * You’re correct that design has become a hot topic in the past few years. Yet, the real principle of design–the matching of form to function–remains elusive. Great design is often recognized as intuitively obvious (think iPod); yet poor design often leads to a multitude of responses. Many times, people blame themselves for a poorly designed product/interface, rather than the product itself. In a city–in which hundreds of thousands of different people interact all day long–it is enormously difficult to figure out where and when design decisions have directly influenced those interactions.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Steve, thanks for the comments.

    I’m a huge Jane Jacobs fan and obviously some of this, such as the notion of discrete systems vs. integrated systems is noted by her.

  3. Eric Orozco says:

    About 30yrs ago, back when “urban design” as a professional enterprise was still in diapers, Kevin Lynch wrote a classic piece on this very topic titled “The Immature Arts of City Design” (google for the PDF). It is a short and pungent read.

    In it he pointed us to “six possibilities” for urban design that I believe urban designers/planners as of yet have not had the courage and/or fortunate to implant into our profession (read the article for those provocative possibilities).

    Lynch always pointed to one aspect of our profession that is poorly developed: design as communication. Design is a communicative tool, and the designer must wield this tool.

    To take another lesson from the journalistic profession, the latest issue of the magazine GOOD (on transportation) is a good illustration in itself of the possibilities of design as communication. In order to design we must reveal, remark, re-conceptualize, reengage, renew. Many of us continue to fail in this regard. Our profession is more than watercolor streetscapes. Our responsibility is to reveal the forces that shape the city. For example, this diagram (from an urban design project for a street in Cambridge, MA) is also a “streetscape”:

    A good design always points to new possibilities and the power of synergistic interventions across a variety of realms. We don’t know what we can do. The planner/designer who thinks he has figured it all out, is the planner who can not learn what can be. The urban designer must cultivate the humble art of revealing.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Eric, thanks – very insightful remarks.

    And thanks for telling me about that Kevin Lynch paper – I was not familiar with it. I read almost everything I can get my hands on, but I guess it is like they say, the more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know.

  5. pete-rock says:

    There is a very interesting article in the May 2009 edition of APA’s Planning Magazine that speaks to this very subject (sorry — can’t find a link to it). It’s called “Urban Design Reclaimed.”

    Basically, the article is an excerpt of a new book that will be published with the same name, written by Emily Talen. The article argues that when urban planners took the brunt of failure for modernist urbanism in the 1950’s and 60’s, they refashioned themselves as simply land-use regulators. The problem was, land-use and zoning decisions can have huge impacts on community design, and planners had no vocabulary for dealing with the uniform single-use development patterns of the last 50 years.

    The author says planners have a unique opportunity to become urban designers once again, because they bring social context, a process orientation and a better understanding of alternatives than do architects.

    I hope the author and the APA don’t mind my quick summary of the article. I certainly plan on buying the book when it’s released.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    pete, thanks for the reference. Planning Magazine isn’t available online and I don’t subscribe. (BTW: I am not an urban planner). I’ll try to research that author and see what I can find. Sounds interesting.

  7. Thomas Frank says:

    I think this is a timely topic. Eric and Pete's comments point out exactly what is needed. This is a time when Artists and Designers are beginning to exercise their strengths in dialogues they were traditionally excluded from – such as in the decision making process and designing of the built environment.

    One obvious approach is to view the built environment as a visual field requiring systems that maintain orientation for complexities and layers of uses.

    We also can not neglect the importance of allowing carriers of culture to find expression in the built environment. Not as a monumental makers, but as re-formers of space. There is just so much to explore when it comes to how we may move and use space if given the chance. I can not help but think of how designers are discovering new mapping structures of technical social networks with information graphics. The importance of these things can not be discounted. It brings me back to the "Nouvelle Villes" around Paris and "La Defense" developed in the 1980s.

    We are at a moment of major change in how we address and prioritize voices in the decision making and design process when it comes to the built environment. We are beginning to see the authority traditionally given over to Architects folded under the the authority of “Landscape Urbanists” (often referred to as Landscape Architects, but I already think this is an arcane title). do you realize the importance this shift has on Urban planning and how we approach designing our cities.

    In this shift in roles we are opening up all sorts of new visual and spatial disciplines to re-orientate ourselves toward space and re-organize it in a re-development framework. You can see some of these changes in Urban Lab’s H2O project: [ Growing Water ], Valcent Product’s the [ vertical farming ], and William McDonough & Michael Braungart’s seminal book “Cradle to Cradle / Remaking the Way we Make Things.” Luckily there are so many examples springing up daily.

    These are exciting times.

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