Thursday, April 16, 2009

What is Urban Design?

Alex Kreiger has a new book Urban Design. At this point no one for sure truly knows what is urban design? I like this definition below:

Shifting disciplinary allegiances

The modern concept of urban design grew out of still familiar mid-20th century concerns: urban sprawl at city peripheries and decay in aging central areas. A goal was to find “common ground” among the design disciplines (namely architecture and urban planning) for dealing with the kinds of exasperating problems that are beyond the mastery of any single design discipline. However, most agree—some enthusiastically and others with reservations—that urban design has largely been the domain of architects interested in urbanism.

The proponents of this view argue that since giving shape to urban space and settlement is an essential task of urban design, it requires an architect’s training. Still, as the planning profession increasingly reengages physical planning, which it more-or-less abandoned for a generation or more, its claims on urban design grow. And physical planning, planners say, involves many issues that, while carrying spatial implications, are not at heart architectural, so an architecture-dominated approach to urban design is limiting. Meanwhile the public at large, with their everyday concerns like housing affordability, traffic calming, neighborhood enhancement, and containment of development, sees urban design as a more proactive, less abstract concept than planning (which has never completely shed its urban renewal era reputation as a top/down approach to problem solving) and so demands good urban design from its public planners.

But the most recent and radical (in view of the prior half century) relationship being forged is with landscape architecture. Urban and landscape design have generally been viewed as separate if not conflicting activities. The initial cadre of self-described urban designers, primarily architects, viewed urban design as at the intersection of planning and architecture, where it would mediate and overcome the perceived gaps between the two. The goals of landscape architects were seen as peripheral and over time were even accused of facilitating decentralizing tendencies and suburbanization. Urban design, many believed, had to concern itself primarily with the tougher mandates of Modern architecture and its transformative urban manifestos, not with the softer art of designing with natural things or fostering kindness to ecosystems.

An emerging generation of designers calling themselves landscape urbanists questions the supposition that urban design insight is the prerogative of architectural form-making sensibilities alone and asks, “Isn’t the landscape the real glue of the modern metropolis?” This startling proposition becomes less revolutionary the moment one tours virtually any contemporary metropolitan area from the air to observe the small proportion of building as compared to landscape. We are no longer building the solid city represented in figure-ground plans in which open space is what is left where there are no buildings. While still somewhat vague in methodology and projects, the promise of landscape urbanism is powerful, since it promotes a logical integration of land use, environmental stewardship, and place-making.

The increasing intellectual claims on urban design from urban planning and especially from landscape architecture present the most fascinating recent developments for the field. Given the complexities of urbanization, the placing of urban design concerns closer to the center of each of the design disciplines is promising, and in a belated way fulfills the instincts (if not the actions) of the urban design pioneers of a half-century ago. Conversely, the increased attention to matters of urban design has forced the field to become alert to more aspects of the social and natural sciences, to transportation and civil engineering, water and waste management, zoning and public policy, and other areas earlier considered largely the responsibility of others.

The definition above might be too academic, I like the fact that it incorporates all the things that can fall under urban design and is a pro-active approach to our landscapes. Let's hope this definition becomes more mainstream as well as the discipline itself.

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