“Who Am I?” And Other Very Practical Questions

Jeffrey Barg's picture

From the first day of the semester, I could tell my Urban Design Methods course was going to be different from the others I've taken in planning school so far.

"Call me at home. I'm up till midnight," the professor told us. I'm not up till midnight.

He asks us questions like, "What is your design identity?" "What three adjectives describe you as a designer?" "Who are you?" It makes grad school feel kind of like therapy. Really, really expensive therapy.

The mix of uber-theory and hyper-practicality works, oddly enough. On the one hand, the prof is very into –ologies: morphology, typology, methodology, epistemology. But then we shift into overdrive on practical matters, and that's when I realize, "Oh wait, I will be employable when I'm done with this!" Out of an exercise in which we are figuring out our design identity, we emerge with portfolio pieces. Which is particularly useful when you're a budding urban designer with limited background in design.

Because as much as they prepare us, and as professional as the program is oriented, three cold, hard realities are coming clear as March comes around: 1) The economy is terrible. 2) We have to find summer internships that will pay us to work for a few months. And 3) The economy is terrible.

Thankfully, we're not without guidance. After studying the Louisiana Speaks Pattern Book, for example, we were tasked with creating our own pattern books for cities around the world. A partner and I are currently working on design guidelines for Salvador da Bahia, which, given that Philadelphia is 30 degrees on a good day in February, can only be a cruel joke on the part of the professor.

Like in all the best classes, it simulates the professional design process, but at warp speed. In the space of four weeks-one of which is spring break, natch-we need to figure out what the city looks like, come up with design guidelines that both challenge and honor the existing aesthetic, figure out how different types of uses would and should look there, and mock up floor plans and streetscapes. We essentially take the most theoretical idea-what Salvador da Bahia's identity is-and translate that into almost-bricks-and-mortar in SketchUp and AutoCAD. (Oh, and Rhino too: I'm the lucky dog whose class partner is in the architecture department.) It makes you appreciate how theory can actually be applied.

The project is coming along, but it's tough when you're shivering in the underheated library. For the first couple days of research, I didn't care a whit what the design looked like; I was just cursing how much it costs to fly to Brazil. Tough to swing plane tickets when you've got therapy bills to pay.

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



urban design as a planner

Jeffrey -

I've noticed that a lot of well-known urban designers have a background in architecture and not planning (eg. UPenn's Barnett, Kevin Lynch, Jan Gehl).

Did you ever consider studying architecture as a route to a career in urban design as opposed to planning? If not, do you wish you did?

I'm interested in studying urban design and I'm trying to decide if I should go to school for architecture (actually, I'd probably study landscape arch.) or planning.

BTW - keep us the good work w/ the blog.

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