REVIEW: Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People

Julia Galef reviews Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, and Oliver Gillham.

Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for Peopleis really two books in one. The first half is a primer on how and why city forms have changed over time; nothing new, but it is accessible and engaging. The story starts in 2600 B.C. and sweeps breezily along, propelled by the forces of economics and technology, and by influential dictators, planners, and theorists. Knitting the narrative together are recurring patterns that carry different meanings each time they reappear: wide straight avenues, first implemented for military reasons and then to evoke grandeur in the City Beautiful era; or the grids that facilitated tax collection in medieval cities and, centuries later, expressed a young America's commitment to democratic principles.

The second half of the book is both more original and more problematic. The authors outline five principles of good urban design -- e.g., "Build community in an increasingly diverse society" and "Expand personal choices," -- and then illustrate them with 70 recent case studies. The principles are hard to argue with, but that's partly because they're vague enough to be verging on platitudinous. And with only a few paragraphs describing each project, the case studies are correspondingly vague as well.

But there are some interesting themes running through the 70 case studies, even if the authors don‘t highlight them. One in particular would have made for a fascinating discussion: the intricate balances that the featured designs strike between variety and uniformity. As plenty of the case studies demonstrate, visual unity between a project and its surroundings makes it feel like it belongs. And uniform design within a project can create a sense of place -- take, for instance, the master plan that lined Santa Monica Boulevard with a single species of tree to give it visual continuity.

Cady's Alley, Washington, D.C.

Yet variety is also crucial to keep a new development from feeling monolithic and manufactured. That's why the developer of Cady's Alley in Washington, D.C. hired five different architects to design the block. (To tie the project together, they all collaborated on the design of the common spaces.) Other teams build variety into their project's design guidelines. The group that redeveloped 42nd street in Manhattan prohibited any "uniform or coordinated system among adjacent storefronts and signage," to prevent it from acquiring a "themed" feel in the future.

Striking the right balance between variety and uniformity is more than just an aesthetic issue; it's also a social one. Urban designers lessen the stigma of low-income housing developments by unifying them visually with their neighborhoods, and by creating aesthetic variety within a development to avoid the dreaded "housing project" feel. Within mixed-income developments like the Ellen Wilson community in D.C., a unified style avoids calling attention to differences between tenants' income levels. And mimicking pre-existing housing styles can even help spark revitalization. That's the strategy one team used for a development in a poor neighborhood of Louisville, KY: they gave prospective buyers the confidence to invest by "using the images and forms identified with successful, traditional Louisville neighborhoods," the team reports.

It's also disappointing that the authors don't use all those case studies to shed light on some of the controversies in the field. For example, they quote the editor of Urban Land Magazine, Kristina Kessler, articulating a common criticism of privately owned public spaces: that they prioritize consumerism and, "in their intent to attract an upscale clientele, these projects divide and exclude." Later, the authors praise the (largely privately owned) Ramsey Town Center in Minnesota for integrating offices, homes, entertainment, and three "public" spaces. So how does it avoid the pitfalls described by Ms. Kessler? The authors don't say.

But the biggest blind spot in the case studies is that they don't discuss how the projects are actually used. The book's subtitle is "placemaking for people," and successful places depend at least as much on good management and programming as they do on physical design. It's all too easy for projects to claim that they will be successful places, and all too hard to tell ahead of time which ones actually will. Without any examination of the outcomes of the case studies (many of which haven't even been built yet), too many of them read like the blurbs on the firms' own glossy promotional brochures.



Whither Urban Design?

Recently, there has been increasing public attention and interest in urban design, as seen in the conference on urban design after the age of oil at the University of Pennsylvania last year, an edited book on urban design earlier this year out of Harvard, and the book reviewed above. All of this is welcome and commendable, as people rediscover the significance of urbanism. However, unless we are both, more ambitious and more critical, we risk replacing old platitudes with new truisms and old fashions with new trends, rather than fundamentally shifting the way we design cities.

There are two points that Ms. Galef makes in her book review that are relevant to this argument: a shift from descriptive self-promotion to critical self-reflection, and a shift from design intentions to urban consequences. Far too often, urban designers and writers indulge in platitudinous descriptions of projects, what Ms. Galef tellingly describes as "like the blurbs on the firms' own glossy promotional brochures." Similarly, we rarely seriously consider what the actual impact of an urban design project is, not only on its users (i.e. "the biggest blind spot in the case studies is that they don't discuss how the projects are actually used"), but also on the rest of the city--both in terms of urban form and the larger process of city-building.

The key ingredient to critical self-reflection as a powerful part of urban design is the ability to admit mistakes and to learn from them. I find it extremely refreshing to come across the all-too-rare conference presentation by an architect or urban designer who talks about the reality of the ups and downs, back and forths, fits and starts, and errors in the design process, rather than a slick self-congratulatory or marketing-type talk. Real learning comes from recognizing and admitting our own mistakes, realizing that this is an inevitable part of the design process, embracing thoughtful risk-taking, and reflecting deeply on the lessons of such mistakes.

With all the talk of "green design", "cutting edge technologies", or "neo-traditionalism", there is a risk of urban designers who claim to have better ways of designing cities but are nonetheless singular and overly-narrow in their approaches. While the design intentions behind these trends are commendable (e.g. ecological sensitivity, rediscovering history, testing technologies), anyone who has practiced professionally knows that city-building processes are multifaceted with multiple goals and conflicting stakeholders. The creative challenge for urban designers is to navigate and manage these processes such that design is much more than well-meaning intention; ultimately, it is about meaningful consequences in the long term (e.g. designing democratic city building processes, developing innovative frameworks--e.g. standards and guidelines--for urban development, crafting strategic interventions in infrastructure investment, creating critical political constituencies for urban design, privileging those who are marginalized).

Urban design is fundamentally about urban form, but it is also about so much more, and that's what makes it truly challenging, exciting, and rewarding.

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