Urban Design: A Frame of Mind?

Alex Krieger and William S. Saunders recently published “Urban Design,” a 368-page collection of essays and discussions featuring prominent figures in city planning, architecture, and landscape architecture.  Together, they trace the field as it “evolved less as a technical discipline than as a frame of mind shared by those of several disciplinary foundations.” The volumes take the reader through the history of urban design by offering a critical analysis of competing theories and predicts future challenges posed by growing urban populations. Because the book features writings from multiple viewpoints, readers gain a well-rounded assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the differing schools of urban design theory.

The book begins with excerpts from transcripts of the first Urban Design Conference held at Harvard University in 1956.  This landmark conference, hosted by José Luis Sert, marked the establishment of urban design as a distinct planning discipline, as it was here that the field’s assumptions and ambitions were first discussed.  The essays that follow help to contextualize and critique the emerging urban design theories and illustrate the stark differences in opinions among those attending the conference.

Subsequent essays discuss urban design as it has evolved from the 1956 conference to its present state.  Because this field represents an overlap of so many disciplines – including city planning, architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, sociology, and politics – it has struggled to find its true identity as its focus has been pushed and pulled in many directions.  Urban designers are faced with the task of creating a cohesive plan that balances a macro-focus of developing a cohesive, functional, navigable and economically healthy city while still maintaining a micro-focus on the beauty, livability, sustainability, and ecology of individual neighborhoods. 

Now, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in an urban environment. “We are becoming an urban species to a degree unimaginable,” and as a result urban designers will be confronted with more complex problems in the near future.  The final collection of essays attempts to predict some of the daunting problems that are looming on the horizon, and challenges designers to “inventively confront the morphological, functional, and human needs of cities and their citizens.” 

Urban Design” is a great starting point for readers looking to become familiar with urban design history and the development of design theory.  For practitioners looking for a blueprint for designing an urban space, however, you probably want to look for another source, as this book does not focus on case studies or the practical steps that go into the process of designing and building a city.

Contributors: Jonathan Barnett, Denise Scott Brown, Joan Busquets, Kenneth Greenberg, John Kaliski, Timothy Love, Fumihiko Maki, Richard Marshall, Eric Mumford, Michelle Provoost, Peter G. Rowe, Edward W. Soja, Richard M. Sommer, Michael Sorkin, Emily Talen, Marilyn Jordan Taylor, Wouter Vanstiphout, Charles Waldheim.

This post is by Matt Busa, ASLA 2010 advocacy and communications intern.

Image credit: ASLA 2009 Professional Honor Award. Teardrop Park, New York, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., New York, NY

2 thoughts on “Urban Design: A Frame of Mind?

  1. Leni Schwendinger 02/19/2010 / 3:23 pm

    I strolled through Cambridge open space with Alex when he was Director of the Urban Design Program at Harvard. As a lighting designer with a passion for cities and communities, I asked him for a history of urban design – and how it differed from planning. His answer was eloquent, he said urban design was a young discipline and had started when architect/planners became boxed in as zoning-only practitioners. He described the desire for a more fluid, people-oriented discipline and thus urban design was born.

    I am excited to be working on a fresh look at the after-dark hours in cities – the nexus of urban and lighting design; public lighting.

    For more on this subject: http://tiny.cc/PublicLightTheory

  2. John Baymiller 02/19/2010 / 8:21 pm

    It’s about time, and …even a bit late. Sad that our
    architects are so taken with’ toy computer images’ that
    they fail to see the larger picture. The basic problem
    is that students nowadays are not educated in the
    Larger Sphere of architecture, which the modernists of
    past were done. Kids today can’t even hold a pencil.
    How can they comprehend a city plan when they only
    play on their blackberry for design?

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