Responsible Urban Design

Urban Ecological Design: A Process for Regenerative Places is a comprehensive and accessible guidebook on urban design with an emphasis on ecology and sustainability. Intended for students, design and planning practitioners, developers and public officials, it’s a good primer for those less familiar with the process and a useful reference for more experienced practitioners.

The book’s authors are both educators and practitioners in design fields. Danilo Palazzo is Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Design at Politecnico di Milano, Italy, and Frederick Steiner, FASLA, is Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, Austin, and a guiding force in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES). Their purpose in writing the book is to clarify the role of urban design and outline a non-prescriptive process for transforming urban space. They describe this process as “systematic, precisely linear, and highly optimistic”, but one that is never formulaic: “urban design, like other design and planning activities, not only permits but demands that different answers and different solutions are considered for a given problem.”

Their process, dubbed the “not-only-one-solution” process, is a flexible methodology consisting of ten steps intended to be applicable across a broad range of scenarios. The steps are illustrated with theories, techniques, and case studies outlining different options for “transforming urban spaces into inviting and sustainable urban places.” They draw on standard practices of the design profession as well as philosophies and methods developed by influential practitioners like Ian McHarg and Kevin Lynch. These techniques tend toward an interpretation of urban design that “favors an objective-rational process (‘scientific’) rather than an expressive-subjective one (‘artistic’) but does not reject the latter.”

Palazzo and Steiner stress the interdisciplinary nature of the process, emphasizing that “a positive role of urban design is to transcend the boundaries of the disciplines from which it draws,” including architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. They note that the term “urban design” does not generally refer to a discipline itself, but rather to an interface between other disciplines that requires a broad range of skills and technical knowledge. Urban design encompasses the design of all elements of the built environment and is interested in building new forms as well as managing what already exists. It also addresses issues at multiple scales in different urban environments and aims to be flexible enough to adapt to changes over time.

Palazzo and Steiner are especially interested in expanding the process of urban design to include ecology as a core component. By reconfiguring urban form to allow for the consumption of fewer resources and adding natural elements like trees, designers can help mitigate climate change and energy consumption. They can also foster “the integration of humans and nonhumans in functional and just ecosystems” by increasing connectivity between green spaces and cities to provide more robust habitats for urban wildlife. 

This added emphasis on ecology is part of what Palazzo and Steiner consider to be the “responsibility” of urban design in improving the built environment. They believe that urban designers have three responsibilities: a “species responsibility” to address ongoing environmental destruction; a “generational responsibility” to improve conditions for future generations; and a “competence responsibility” to design with the best possible skills, aptitudes, and intentions.

In outlining a process for urban design with an emphasis on ecology and sustainability, they hope to help practitioners design more resilient urban environments. The “not-only-one-solution” methodology seeks to foster better stewardship and provide guidance for a complex process that resists formulaic responses.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Masters of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Pennsylvania 

Read the book.

Image credit: Island Press

2 thoughts on “Responsible Urban Design

  1. Janey Smith 01/24/2012 / 12:19 pm

    Thanks for posting. been interested in this for a bit. Good reading

  2. Joe Anderson 01/25/2012 / 11:47 am

    Thanks for the info, i would love to have that book!

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