Will the ‘Real Urban Designer’ Please Stand Up! Part I

Figure.1 Chicago, IL image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2014
Figure.1 Chicago, IL
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2014

As we are approaching ASLA’s 2016 Annual Meeting and EXPO in New Orleans and coming to the end of another term with ASLA’s Urban Design (UD) Professional Practice Network (PPN) annual activities, once again, I come to realize that what we call urban design is not the same for all landscape architecture professionals (nor to architects, planners, and/or engineers). Calling one’s self an urban designer without clarity may also not do justice to the field and practice of urban design. For the 1,686 active members of the PPN and nearly 2,500 active UD PPN Linkedin Group members (as of September 2016), it seems like we may have almost as many definitions as the number of professionals who are following our UD PPN voluntary activities.

It is difficult for the urban design field and practice to make progress, if it fails to be conceptually clear about its nature, purpose, methods (Lang, 2005). Therefore, I decided to use this post as an opportunity to reflect upon “what is urban design;” the precedent, definition, features, area of practices, and professional domain with the intention that we can find a common thread among landscape architecture professionals (and other professionals) within the comprehensive domain of “urban design.”

Part I: Tracing the Roots
Part I focuses on the history, the precedent, and the nomenclature that seems to have shaped the ground for UD as an academic field and area of practice. Part II concentrates on the evolving definition along with the current and anticipated future practices of urban design.

The Precedent:
Not surprisingly, the term “urban design” presents an “ambiguity” (Madanipour, 1997; Lynch in Banerjee and Soutworth, ed., 1990), and lack of cohesive theoretical (Sternberg, 2000) and professional foundations in design and planning literature. Although UD is relatively a new term, a new discipline, and an area of practice recognized fully in the 20th century, the earliest recorded examples of concerns and solutions within the realm of UD practice date back to 13th century. According to Gosling, one of the earliest recorded building laws that established UD guidelines is a 1262 statute regulating the forms of houses fronting the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy (Gosling and Gosling, 2003).

Early precedents of planned cities in the United States with UD implications date back as early as 1573 to the Spanish settlements planned in accordance with the Laws of the Indies. The early planned cities, which were the first to use a gridiron system in the US were Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the late 17th century and Savannah, Georgia at the beginning of 18th century. The early 19th century planning of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia is also considered as an expressive example of the UD principles in the US (Gosling and Gosling, 2003).

Figure.2 Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany, Italy image: Taner R. Ozdil, 1999
Figure.2 Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany, Italy
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 1999

Within the same time frame, Sitte’s work on City Planning According to Artistic Principles in the late 19th century in Europe (Sitte, 1889) was informing planned cities while Columbian Exhibition (Chicago World Fair) and the City Beautiful Movement was influencing UD framework in the US. Despite the pressures of industrial developments and increasing urban population, the movement brought new alternative uses for the cities, such as civic centers and civic open spaces creating more livable cities. The relationships among the components that constitute the urban fabric in the US found rigorous emphasis during this period.

For example, Olmstead and Vaux’s positions regarding the necessity of Central Park (as well as the other urban parks) for its future urban context and their planning and design responses in this period could be considered as critical steps shaping UD in the US. However, the impact of the automobile and the modernist movement in the early 20th century created additional concerns regarding the US cities.

Figure.3 Downtown Chicago, IL image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2008
Figure.3 Downtown Chicago, IL
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2008

Modern urbanism emulated the machine to accommodate an industrial society (Ellin, 1996). In the modernist view of design and planning, physical form followed function (Madanipour, 1996). Although the Charter of Athens by International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in the 1930s outlined the problems of the industrial city and laid down the physical requirements of building healthy, humane, and beautiful environments for people (Jacobs and Appleyard, 1987), the modernist idea of the city envisioned an urban environment broken into functional segments that constituted the parts of a coherent whole.

The modernist dictated self-sufficient environments (megablocks), creating pieces in a unifying master plan (Loukaitou-Sideris and Banerjee, 1998). In his book The Geography of Nowhere, James H. Kunstler candidly criticizes modernism as the worship of machines that sweeps away all the architectural history and all romantic impulses, jamming all human aspirations into a plain box (Kunstler, 1993). In his book, Urban Design, by dwelling on the major concerns of this period, Lang suggests that the birth of UD was “…the recognition that the sterile urban environments achieved by applying the ideas of the modern movement to both policy making and to architectural design at the urban design scale were a failure in terms of the lives of the people who inhabited them…” (Jacobs, 1962; Blake, 1977; Huet, 1984; Lang, 1994).

Figure.4 Dallas Skyline within Urban Context, TX image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2013
Figure.4 Dallas Skyline within Urban Context, TX
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2013

Perhaps as a result of the concerns regarding the form, function, and the aesthetics of the cities in the earlier portion of the 20th century, UD emerged as an area of both scientific and professional concern in the literature, and as a response to the failure of planning methods to produce a satisfactory physical environment in the modern period (Gosling and Gosling, 2003).

The emergence of the concerns regarding the consequences of how cities were built in this period led to the development of UD at Harvard in the 1950s and the Team 10 challenge to CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, 1928–56). This development along with Harvard’s first Urban Design Conference of 1956 (Krier et. al. ed. 2009) could be considered a shift towards a more grounded approach toward UD as a scholarly field and an area of practice.

Figure.5 Inner Harbor Baltimore, MD image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2014
Figure.5 Inner Harbor Baltimore, MD
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2014

In my view, it is critical for landscape architecture professionals to know that the criticism concerning the design and planning practices of the early 20th century laid the groundwork for some of the preliminary issues that defined the scope of UD later in this century. The notion of what constitutes UD evolved from a concept of “form of the city” that focused on the relationship between buildings, monuments, and public squares as Sitte investigated in his seminal book City Planning According to Artistic Principles in 1889 (see also Ed Bacon’s book The Design of Cities) and extrapolated to more complex issues that included social, cultural, and economic matters (Sitte, 1899; Bacon, 1967; Barnett, 1974).

Figure.6 Historic District in Downtown Los Angeles, CA image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2011
Figure.6 Historic District in Downtown Los Angeles, CA
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2011

The premises of UD in this period, not exclusively, are widened to the functions of community space (Gibberd, 1953), human perceptions and experiences of city space (Lynch, 1960; Cullen, 1961; Jacobs, 1962), preservation and revitalization of architectural and urban space (National Historic Preservation Act, 1966), the economy of city space (Jacobs, 1970), the safety of city space (Newman,  1972), the spirit of a place (Norbert-Schulz, 1979), and the meaning and legibility of city form (Lynch, 1981). Indeed, the issues addressed within the framework of UD achieved its broadest coverage during the past three decades as the understanding of the relationship of the human-built environment with the context of urban form for the creation of livable urban space. Some scholars began to address the problems of urban form by analyzing human behavior, human interaction with space, and the culture within the architectural space (Appleyard et al., 1981; White 1989; Rapaport; 1993).

Figure.7 Public Market Center, Seattle, WA image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2012
Figure.7 Public Market Center, Seattle, WA
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2012

The growing complexities of urban areas, especially within the late 20th century, led to solutions that involved physical and social reconstruction along with social equity for a better human environment and urban form. The concerns of the urban form that addressed the human experience and human needs has become one of the major emphasis of the New Urbanism movement that presently exists. As noted by Peter Calthorpe in Pedestrian Pocket and Transit Oriented Development (TOD), and Andrew Duany in the Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), policy incentives and frame works such as livable community and smart growth played a role in formulating the new urbanism movement (Calthorpe, 1993; Duanny and Plater-Zyberg, 1990; Kelbaugh, 2002).

Figure.8 Downtown Salt Lake City, UT image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2016
Figure.8 Downtown Salt Lake City, UT
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2016

The humanistic concerns in this decade also fuel the studies focusing on sustainable urbanism, healthy community, and recent revolutions in communication and transportation technologies. Yet, environmental considerations and urban landscape have not found as much emphasis as one would desire in UD history until the turn of the 21st century.

By Taner R. Ozdil, Ph.D., ASLA, Urban Design PPN Chair, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture & Associate Director for Research for the Center for Metropolitan Density (CfMD) in College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Arlington. Taner can be reached at tozdil@uta.edu for questions, comments, and inquiries.

End Note:
Portions of this blog piece benefits from the author’s own review and writings on the topic from the past decade. A broader discussion regarding Urban Design’s historic development, theoretical and procedural foundations, as well as its professional grounding can be found at Economic Value of Urban Design by Taner R. Ozdil published by VDM-Verlag Dr.Muller, Munich in 2008.


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2 thoughts on “Will the ‘Real Urban Designer’ Please Stand Up! Part I

  1. Tetragenet September 20, 2016 / 12:31 pm

    I am a Graduate Engineer in Landscape Architecture with specification urban open space design and planning and I use this article to reflect on something I’ve tried upon my experience in the field:
    Yesterday through my participation at an event for Micro-Infrastructure, Center for Architecture, LaGuardia Pl, NYC it became clear again, that what you are trying to do with this article: the underlining of the need for a/one definition is at the end always in the hands of such a small pool of parties, having the right to decide about it, also called stakeholders or companies, it’s always a circle around the circle. And at the end I ask myself: Who designs the landscape? Who designs the design?
    “Wer plant die Planung?
    Architektur, Politik und Mensch.”
    Lucius Burckhardt
    Herausgegeben von Jesko Fezer und Martin Schmitz. Martin Schmitz, Berlin 2004, ISBN 3-927795-39-9
    This as a little add-on and support to your important intention, as I think a definition nowadays should also come out of another perspective and not only refer to past books and thoughts, which is my way of understanding the landscape and trying to move towards a kind of suitable solution. Thank you.
    Friederike M B Burckhardt (not physically related to Lucius, only in thinking)

  2. Taner September 29, 2016 / 4:37 am

    Thank you for the note, I hope part-2 clarified some of the questions you raised.

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