More Thoughts on Urban Design (the Field) and Urban Design (the Book)

This is Part Three of my review of Urban Design, the book of essays edited by Alex Krieger and William Saunders. (The review is now turning into an extended essay inspired by the book, as a Part Four is in now the works.) I'm writing this part to respond to comments I received regarding the distinction between the fields of Urban Design and Urban (or City) Planning.

In Parts One and Two I have argued that the field of Urban Design, seeking to combine city planning with architecture, has been ineffectual to the point of being counter-productive. I won't repeat those arguments, but in response I received comments from city planners and architects working in urban contexts who wondered if my skepticism about Urban Design extended as well to city planning. The answer is no -- cities need planning.

Cities thrive on complexity but suffer under chaos. Humans respond to chaos by creating systems. Systems require cooperative efforts that in turn require planning. Some cities were planned from the start while others were born ad hoc as small settlements and acquired systems and planning as they grew. Planning and ad hoc development can occur simultaneously, as in the urbanizing developing world where shantytowns on the outskirts of cities start out as chaotic, jury-rigged settlements, but can ultimately be integrated into the systems of the city they surround.

The most visible example of an urban system is the layout of streets. A city planner needs to plan city streets to make sure that they serve multiple purposes reflecting urban complexity. Bad things happen when traffic engineers, caring only about the movement of vehicles, have control over a city's streets. Cities need planning to integrate separate systems that otherwise would go their own ways. (In the City of Los Angeles, the departments of planning and transportation are separate -- the result is obvious to anyone who tries walking on the narrow sidewalk of an L.A. boulevard.)

The urban systems that require planning, which in addition to streets and other forms transportation include provisions for sanitation, water and utilities, recreation, schools, public safety, etc., are independent of "design" as typically understood. The expansion of the subway and elevated train system in New York City into the outer boroughs, a system that contributes greatly to the city's cohesiveness and coherency, was planned, but the planners focused on transportation, real estate, social, financial and political issues -- design was a low priority.

However, in looking to justify their field Urban Designers like to claim these urban systems within their purview. Alex Krieger, co-editor of Urban Design and a professor of Urban Design at Harvard, tries, in the essay he wrote for the book (Where and How Does Urban Design Happen), to expand the field (or at any rate what "people calling themselves 'urban designers'" do) to cover anything positive that has to do with the city. Krieger never explains, however, beyond a high level of generality, what Urban Design adds to planning. His article comes across as a "doth protests too much" grasping at straws in a book where no Urban Designers seem able, after 50 years, to point to any singular achievements. His statement that "few argue about the need for something called urban design" is unsupported, or even nonsensical given that it immediately follows his admission that after "half a century" it is "unsettled" whether Urban Design is a "distinct professional specialization" or a "general outlook".

There is, of course, a physical element to the city that needs to be designed, and I have already argued that this role properly still belongs to architects who need to consider functionality and the urban context. City planning also has a role to play in the design of buildings, but not a role that requires "Urban Design." Particularly in situations where architects and their clients cannot be trusted to consider the functional urban context, city planners need to use tools like zoning to make sure they do. (The fact that zoning has often been used for anti-urban purposes does not invalidate the need for building regulations.)

In his Huff Post comment to Part Two of this review, architect Robert DeGraaf recalled Bologna's 13th century requirement that new buildings have porticoes and suggested that that requirement was an example of Urban Design. The point is a good one, but I would call the 1288 decree an example of city planning rather than what we now classify as Urban Design. Again, the distinction is over design. Bologna's portico requirement did not dictate the design of buildings, nor require that all the buildings in an area have a consistent design; only that they needed to include arcades for pedestrians. Indeed, varied designs of buildings over centuries have complied with the requirement. The 1288 decree was what we would now call form-based zoning.

I can anticipate the argument that I am splitting hairs, but the difference between a required functional form and Design with a capital-D is important. One allows controllers of property (owners and governments) and their architects over the generations of an evolving city to make unique decisions about specific places -- but within a context of integrated systems. The other is doomed to the present pain and future obsolescence of convulsive development and the ongoing frustrations of the "style wars."

In his essay, Krieger writes that "urban design occupies a hypothetical intersection between planning and architecture and thus fills any perceived gaps between them." It's best not to hypothesize intersections nor fill gaps that may only be perceived.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published last year by City Image Press.