Drawing Blanks: Urban Design and the Power of the Pen

Jeffrey Barg's picture

With just two weeks to go in my second semester, I like to think that I know just about everything about being a planning student by now. But when 100+ prospective students came to our campus open house last week, an easy question stumped me:

"What about drawing?"

At first I thought she was asking if she needed to have an art background coming into school. A thousand times, no. But instead she was looking to learn how to draw as a planner, which is a much trickier proposition.

As much as professors remind us of the importance of having a good, well-developed drawing hand, they really don't teach us how to do that. In two semesters we've had only one actual hand-drawing assignment, and it was just two weeks long. The conundrum led to an advising conversation that sounded kind of like a relationship gone bad:

"You see, I feel like I'm getting mixed messages from you here," I said.

"What do you mean, baby? You know I love you," came the usual reply.

"Well, you're always saying how important I [and drawing] am to you, but you spend all your time elsewhere [on CAD skills]."

"You've gotta have both "

" and then when I try to have it your way, you hit me [with bad grades] because I can't do it."

"Baby, you know I only hit you ‘cause I love you "

It ended with tears, thrown furniture and soggy pizza. As usual.

At least once a week we're told that we need to be able to do "back-of-the-napkin" drawings of plans and ideas. (A side note, but why is it always back-of-the-napkin, back-of-the-envelope? Maybe it's our environmentalist streak, maybe it's the economy, but don't they ever give planners our own pieces of paper to work on?)

But so far, anyway, we haven't actually learned how to do those drawings.

Sure, I've learned how to Photoshop a butter sculpture of Mikhail Gorbachev into the middle of an urban streetscape, but I still can't draw for bupkes.

What would you have told that bright-eyed prospective student? It later occurred to me that she (or I) could take a fine arts class in drawing, but there you'll learn how to sketch a bowl of fruit or a flower or a naked woman. Appealing, but not all that useful for block renderings (unless you're planning a nudist colony).

On the one hand, I don't want to rely on computers for everything. I know that even the Photoshop functions meant to make a drawing or painting look handmade can't compare to actual ink on paper, and those pictures are important: for selling an idea, for dramatizing the effects of intervention, for sitting in a meeting and helping a client visualize what you're talking about.

But are we clinging to a dead art? Are we only a couple years away from when our restaurant napkins are somehow computerized, with the full Adobe Creative Suite built in?

Professors say no, but I'm not so sure. I've been burned before, and just how much heartbreak is a man supposed to take?

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He can be reached at jeffreybarg@gmail.com.



Drawing for Planning Students

Susan Owen Atkinson,AICP
After finishing planning grad school twenty years ago, I retrofitted my planning toolkit with drawing skills by doing the following: working as a planner in an architecture firm, attending Mike Lin's 10-day Presentation Graphics and Rendering Workshop in Manhattan, Kansas, and taking Drawing and Intro to 2-D Design courses at a university. These days I am pretty competent at "back of the napkin" sketches. Graphic competence is just basic literacy for planners. Planning educators are right to mention it; too bad very few programs put their money where their mouth is. Anybody can learn to draw; it's really just learning to see!

Clinging to a Dead Art

Insisting that planners know how to hand-draw is indeed a dead art. If we're going to insist that planners know how to hand draw, we should also make sure they know how to use a slide-rule in case excel crashes. While we're at it we should all be sure and have excellent handwriting too, in case we want to hand write our reports for a personal effect.

It's not that there's no value in things like hand-drawing, there is. A hand drawing can be absolutely stunning or a back-of-the-envelope drawing can help explain a point. However, the time and effort to develop those skills simply isn't worth the benefit of having them. You're time is finite and it's best spent on the skills that are essential, not the ones that are "nice to have". I know a number of planners and drafters that have excellent hand-drawing skills. They employ these skills about once every month or two. The rest of the time they're on AutoCAD, PhotoShop or GIS.

If you're looking for a key skill that's not being taught enough in planning school, sign up for a public speaking club or course. It will do wonders for your career in the long run, and is definitely something I wish I had learned while still in school.

I couldn't disagree more!

I couldn't disagree more! Okay, well maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but I still disagree.

I'm an engineer, and I find sketching to be a hugely valuable skill. Sure, creating finely crafted renderings by hand may not be necessary, but in meetings and conversations, the ability to quickly sketch out what you are talking about is invaluable. If people can see it, they can think critically about it. Explaining a site plan or neighbourhood layout in words is not nearly as effective as drawing it out.

I'm not saying that intensive drawing courses need to be a part of planning programs, but training in basic sketching is an absolute necessity.

Great point... don't want to

Great point... don't want to rely on computers for everything but not sure that it is that big of a deal for planners not to draw. Planners often have many other valuable skills like data analysis, policy analysis, and communication skills that may be more important. I don't mind focusing on those rather than learning how to draw. What is more important is learning good design principles and then learning how to implement them while working with architects and urban designers (the people that should be drawing). Effective communication among the disciplines is far more important.

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