There are two kinds of urban design.
The first kind is done by architects. It treats urban design like a big architectural project — a simultaneously designed group of buildings and public spaces. This approach is mostly concerned with the arrangement of three-dimensional objects in space: massing, texture, materials, and the unique designs of individual buildings and spaces. It is the kind of large-scale urban design going on in places like Beijing and Dubai by big-name architects working for big-time developers. It is corporate, consumer-driven, often glamorous, and resource-intensive.
The other kind of urban design is community-based. It is rooted in the urban planning profession rather than architecture, and has a much more distinctly social purpose. It is focused on the health of neighborhoods as social units rather than the aesthetic qualities of streetscapes and retail spaces as revenue-generators. It is not developer-driven. It is instead the result of people who care about place coming together and formulating a physical plan for neighborhood improvement. It is about procuring the best and most aesthetically pleasing places for all kinds of people, weaving together the various services, functions, economic activities, and environmental protection they require.
There is a time and place for each of these urban design approaches. But we need to broaden the field of urban design to reach beyond the domain of architects. If planners are to help develop communities that function well, accommodate different types of people, promote a sense of caring about place, and ultimately provide a more supportive and inspiring public realm, they need to be actively engaged in the urban design process, assisting communities in their efforts to find a collective, “civilizing vision,” to use Leon Krier’s phrase.
Krier wrote something apt in his 2008 book, The Architectural Turning of Settlements: “Human settlements are structured into private and public realms, whatever their purpose, size or location. Yet, neither public nor private enterprise generate a robust and elegant public realm as a mere by-product of their activities. Its beauty, its socializing power are the fruit of conscious intent, of civilizing vision.”
While most architects would agree that urban design is more than the design of groups of buildings or sections of streets, there is a fundamental truth about urban design that sometimes gets swept under the designer’s rug. Neighborhood design must simultaneously support social, environmental, and economic purposes before it serves artistic inspiration. Design that is poignant or idiosyncratic often makes for great architecture, but, in the realm of design for neighborhoods and communities, design serves a different purpose.
This creates a dilemma for architects who have been taught to seek out exceptions to the rule as sources for inspiration. Urban design that focuses on helping neighborhoods become better places to live may be much more about instilling time-honored regularities than searching for ways to employ novelty.
The planner’s sense of design is first and foremost motivated by civic concern — design that supports diverse, sustainable, vibrant, and equitable communities. Proposals to connect two spaces, insert a public park, route a path in a certain direction, focus attention on a particular intersection — all of these are supported by an underlying social logic focused on creating healthy neighborhoods and communities. It is the kind of design that values the common good and the public realm ahead of the bottom line.
Poised to lead
Urban planners need to regain confidence in the realm of urban design. Somewhere around the mid-20th century, planning as a profession lost its focus on the importance of a “civilizing vision.” Some blame the experience of urban renewal, which had the effect of recasting the fields of both architecture and planning away from a design-based concern for civic health.
In The Profession of City Planning: Changes, Successes, Failures and Challenges (1950–2000), edited by Lloyd Rodwin and Bish Sanyal, Witold Rybczynski argued that, after the 1960s, architecture stopped talking about social goals and returned to its function as the avant-garde, “exchanging the role of environmental designer for that of fashion maven,” while planning recast itself as a profession of negotiators and land-use regulators.
Unlike architecture, planning did not have building design to fall back on. Eventually, a “planner” came to be thought of as just another person sitting at the table.
Yet, in the last few years, motivated by anti-sprawl activism, there has been growing recognition that the loss of connection between planning and design has had dire consequences for the nation’s built landscape. While the design-planning nexus is still masked by zoning regulation, socioeconomic analysis, and the rules of bureaucracies, planners seem more aware now than ever that many of the things they control have profound design consequences. There is realization that something as mundane as a zoning code or the regulation of a parking lot can have lasting effects on place quality.
With this recognition, planners are poised to take the lead on relating matters of design to critical social objetctives. Freed from the burden of artistic novelty, they can be the ones adept at using design for civic purposes and social requirements. They can be the ones ensuring that, in the design of human settlements, fundamentals do not get lost in the translation — things like how to make a neighborhood function well, how to support social diversity through design, and how to make a place more civic-minded. They can be the ones ensuring that the creative process of urban design does not obfuscate fundamental needs like sidewalks, aligned frontages, and calmer streets.
Planners can also focus on articulating the rationale behind urban design proposals, rather than trying to argue in favor of one architectural fashion over another. Without having to talk about style, qualities like human scale and equity do not have to appear nostalgic or sentimental.
Source: Planning Magazine, May 2009 (APA log-in required)