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This book adopts a broad understanding of urban design as the process of making better places for people than would otherwise be produced (Figures 1.1–1.3). Four themes are emphasised in this definition: first, that urban design is for people; second, the significance of 'place'; third, that urban design operates in the 'real' world, with its field of opportunity constrained by economic (market) and political (regulatory) forces; and fourth, the importance of design as a process. That urban design is about making better places than would otherwise be produced is, of course, a normative contention about what urban design should be rather than what it is at any point in time.
Introducing and defining urban design, this chapter is organised into three main parts. The first part develops an understanding of the subject. The second part discusses the contemporary need for urban design. The third part discusses urban designers and urban design practice.
UNDERSTANDING URBAN DESIGN
From the early 1960s, a clutch of writers and designers – notably Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen, Christopher Alexander, Aldo Rossi, Ian McHarg, Jan Gehl and others – became influential in shaping what would increasingly become known as urban design. The term itself had been coined in North America in the late 1950s and is often associated with Jose Luis Sert, Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, convening an 'urban design' conference at Harvard in 1956 and subsequently setting up the first American urban design programme at that university (see Krieger & Saunders 2009).
As a term for the activity, it replaced the more traditional and narrower term 'civic design'. Typified by the City Beautiful Movement, civic design focused on the siting and design of major civic buildings – city halls, opera houses and museums – and their relationship to open spaces. Evolving from an initial, predominantly aesthetic, concern with the distribution of building masses and the space between buildings, contemporary urban design denotes a more expansive approach and, reflecting the title of this book, has become primarily concerned with shaping urban space as a means to make, or re-make, the 'public' places that people can use and enjoy.
Defining Urban Design
Containing two problematical words, urban design can be an ambiguous term. Taken separately, 'urban' and 'design' have clear meanings: urban describes the characteristics of towns or cities, while design refers to such activities as sketching, planning, arranging, colouring and pattern-making. As used generally within the field, 'urban' has a wide and inclusive meaning, embracing not only the city and town but also the village and hamlet, while 'design', is as much about effective problem solving and/or the processes of delivering or organising development, as about narrow aesthetics or particular physical outcomes.
Discussing definitions of urban design, Madanipour (1996: 93–117) identified seven areas of ambiguity:
Should it be focused at particular scales or levels?
Should it focus only on the visual qualities of the urban environment or, more broadly, address the organisation and management of urban space?
Should it simply be about transforming spatial arrangements or should it be about more deeply seated social and cultural relations between spaces and society?
Should its focus be its product (the urban environment) or the process by which it is produced?
Should it be the province of architects, planners or landscape architects?
Should it be a public or private sector activity?
Should it be an objective–rational process (a science) or an expressive–subjective process (an art)?
The first three are concerned with the 'product' of urban design, the last three concern urban design as a 'process', while the fourth concerns the product–process dilemma. Although Mandanipour's ambiguities are deliberately presented as oppositional and mutually exclusive, it is often a matter of and/both rather than either/or. As we 'consciously shape and manage our built environments' (Madanipour 1996: 117), urban designers are interested in and engaged with both process and its products. While, in practice, urban design is used to refer to all the products and processes of development, in a more restricted sense it means adding quality to both product and process.
Another distinction that can be confusing is that between its use in a descriptive manner and its use in a normative manner. In the former, all urban development is ipso facto urban design; in the latter, only urban development of sufficient merit or quality is urban design. Thus, seen analytically, urban design is the process by which the urban environment comes about; seen normatively, it is – or should be – the process by which better urban environments come about. Confusion comes because those 'in-the-know' (designers) will often skip between these forms of use, but others (often social scientists) fail to make this distinction.
Urban design's scope is broad. Indicating the potential scope and diversity of urban design, and attempting to sum up the remit of urban design in simple terms, Tibbalds (1988a) suggested it was 'Everything you can see out of the window.' While this statement has a basic truth and logic, if 'everything' can be considered to be urban design, then equally perhaps 'nothing' is urban design (see Dagenhart & Sawicki 1994). There is, however, little value in putting boundaries around the subject. The real need is for definitions encapsulating its heart or core rather than prescribing its edge or boundary – that is, for the identification, clarification and debate of its central beliefs and activities.
To explore the source of some of this confusion, urban design can be considered in terms of discipline and geographical scale.
In terms of discipline, it is frequently easier to say what urban design is not than precisely what it is. It is not, for example, big architecture, small-scale planning, civic beautification, urban engineering, a pattern-book subject, just visual/aesthetic in its scope, only a public sector concern, nor a narrow self-contained discipline. Despite this, relational definitions e those defining something in relation to something else – can help us to get closer to what it is. Urban design, for example, is typically defined in terms of architecture and town planning – Gosling & Maitland (1984) described it as the 'common ground' between these disciplines, while the UK's former Social Science Research Council located it at
'... the interface between architecture, landscape architecture and town planning, drawing on the design tradition of architecture and landscape architecture, and the environmental management and social science tradition of contemporary planning.' (Bentley & Butina 1991)
Urban design, however, is not simply an interface. It encompasses and sometimes subsumes a number of disciplines and activities: architecture, town planning, landscape architecture, surveying, property development, environmental management and protection, etc. As Cuthbert (2007: 185) observes, professions are always territorial, and, furthermore, frequently at the behest of professions, academic institutions offering education in professional areas inevitably also become territorial (see Table 1.1). Urban design is not, or should not be, a particular professional territory (see below).
Despite some professions periodically making imperialist claims on the field, urban design is typically collaborative and inter-disciplinary, involving an integrated approach and the skills and expertise of a wide range of actors. Some urban design practitioners argue that 'place' is not – or should not be – a professional territory and that, rather than imbuing the creative task of designing urban places in the hands of a single 'all-knowing' designer, it should be shared among many actors. Cowan (2001a: 9), for example, has asked:
'... which profession is best at interpreting policy; assessing the local economy and property market; appraising a site or area in terms of land use, ecology, landscape, ground conditions, social factors, history, archaeology, urban form and transport; managing and facilitating a participative process; drafting and illustrating design principles; and programming the development process?'
He contends that, while all these skills are likely to be needed in, say, producing an urban design framework or masterplan, they are rarely all embodied by a single professional. The best frameworks and masterplans are drawn up by a number of people with different skills working in collaboration. Urban designers typically work within a context of multiple clients, often with conflicting interests and objectives, developing as a consequence of multiple solutions to a problem, rather than a single solution.
Indeed, many consider that the very term 'urban design' places it too much within the purview of professional design experts engaging in self-conscious, knowing design, and prefer the more inclusive term 'place-making' and, at a larger scale, city-making: terms suggesting it is more than just (professional) 'designers' who create places and cities. Described as urban design many non-professionals struggle to see their role; described as place-making they can more easily envision their role and contribution. Urban design can thus be considered the self-conscious practice of knowing urban designers; place-making is the self-conscious and unself-conscious practice of everyone.
An important distinction is between urban design (or place-making) as direct design (place-design) and urban design as indirect design or, more grandly, as political economy. In the latter, actors are involved in shaping the nature of place (place-shaping), through establishing policy, making investment decisions, managing space, etc., but may not themselves be involved in any conscious design process. Urban design encompasses both. George (1997) makes a similar distinction between first-order design and second-order design. First-order design involves direct design of a component of the built environment, such as a building or building complex, or environmental improvements – in short, a project of some sort and usually confined within a single site. Second-order (indirect) design involves 'designing' the 'decision environments' of development actors (e.g. developers, investors, designers, etc.). Urban design may be concerned with first-order design processes (e.g. the design of a new public square), but is often concerned with coordinating the component parts of the urban environment through strategies, frameworks and plans, and is thus commonly a second-order design activity.
Scale has also been used as a means of defining urban design, with urban design being commonly considered as the intermediate scale between planning (the settlement) and architecture (individual buildings). In 1976, Reyner Banham defined its field of concern as '... urban situations about half a mile square.' This definition is useful only if urban design is seen as mediating between architecture and planning. Lynch (1981: 291) defined urban design more broadly as encompassing a wide range of concerns across different spatial scales, arguing that urban designers may be engaged in preparing a comprehensive regional access study, a new town, or a regional park system and, equally,
'... may seek to protect neighbourhood streets, revitalise a public square, ... set regulations for conservation or development, build a participatory process, write an interpretative guide or plan a city celebration.'
Urban design typically operates at and across a variety of spatial scales. Considering urban design at particular scales might often be a convenient device, but it detracts from the notion of places as vertically integrated 'wholes'. Urban designers need to be constantly aware of scales above and below the scale at which they are working, and also of the relationships of the parts to the whole, and of the whole to the parts.
Excerpted from Public Places - Urban Spaces by Mathew Carmona Steve Tiesdell Tim Heath Taner Oc Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Carmona, Steve Tiesdell, Tim Heath & Taner Oc. Excerpted by permission of Architectural Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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