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

Figure.1 Main Street District, Houston, TX image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2007
Figure.1 Main Street District, Houston, TX
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2007

PART II: Seeking Future Identity
In Part I, we focused 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 will concentrate on the evolving definition along with the current and anticipated future practices of urban design.

Evolving Definition
For as many concerns that developed in the second half of the 20th century, there are at least as many debates about the definition of Urban Design (UD) as well as the issues covered within the framework of UD. A concise definition is hard to come across from the literature, nor is it realistic to set the scope of the UD field. However, Madanipour’s summary of these “ambiguities” of UD “…the scale of urban fabric which UD addresses; visual or spatial emphases; spatial or social emphases; the relationship in between process and product in city design; the relationship between different professionals and their activities; public or private sector affiliations and design as an objective-rational or subjective-irrational processes” (Madanipour, 1997) sets the perimeters of the issues that define the scope of UD as we become familiar as landscape architecture professionals.

In its most basic form, UD is interrelated but also a distinct academic field and area of practice. It is concerned with the architectural form, the relationship between the buildings and the spaces created within, as well as the social, economic, environmental, and practical issues inherent to these spaces. The field encompasses landscape architecture, architecture, and city planning, (Lynch in Banerjee and Soutworth, ed., 1990; Lang, 2005). UD is viewed as a specialization within the field of architecture (Lang, 1994), as something to be practiced by an architect or landscape architect (Lang 2005; Lynch in Banerjee and Soutworth, ed., 1990), or as integral part of urban planning (Moughtin, 2003; Gosling and Gosling, 2003; Sternberg, 2000).

Due in part to these premises, UD seems to be primarily driven by architectural, landscape architectural, and physical planning considerations. Therefore, the foundations of UD appear to lie within the broader design and planning theories, procedures, and practices. The subject matter of UD includes both the processes of design and planning, as well as the statements about the environment that make up the natural landscape and the built environment (Lang, 1994; Sternberg, 2000).

Figure.2 Newbury Street, Boston, MA image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2002
Figure.2 Newbury Street, Boston, MA
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2002

In his book Inquiry by Design, Zeisel defines design as “…an ordered process in which specific activities are loosely organized to make decisions about changing the physical world to achieve identifiable goals” (Zeisel, 1980). As a design oriented field, the nexus of the UD profession and scholarship relies on identifiable procedures for achieving the goals that a design must fulfill, and the substantive knowledge to those design principles to meet them (Lang, 1994). It is also imperative for landscape architecture professionals to know that substantive concerns must not be limited to the architectural considerations (such as form and the elements of form) predominantly stressed within the literature. Also, it needs to engage with the concerns raised in the literature of planning (such as the dynamics of business, urban policies, and public administration and affairs) and landscape architecture literature (such as ecological, environmental, and aesthetic concerns) to better inform the design and the planning processes in urban context.

Figure.3 River Walk San Antonio, TX image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2014
Figure.3 River Walk San Antonio, TX
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2014

Urban Design Today and Tomorrow
As it is acknowledged in The Art and Science of Urban Landscapes, the global ‘environmental awakening,’ especially in the early 2000s, and growing awareness of sustainable and green design practices across design and planning fields along with technological innovations made designers and planners alike more cognizant of issues such as rapid urbanization, uneven natural and human resource allocation, extraneous consumption behaviors, climate change, and rapid ecological and environmental degradation especially in urban areas (Ozdil, 2014). Given that over 80% of the population in US live in an urbanized environment, UD scholars and professionals seem to be significantly influenced by these changes and challenges of the 21st century.

Figure.4 Downtown Seattle, WA image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2012
Figure.4 Downtown Seattle, WA
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2012

Urban design practice in the 21st century continues to form its foundations with various disciplines shaped by social, behavioral, economical and most importantly, in recent years, environmental concerns (see such as Lenzholzer, S. & Brown, 2016). While some discuss which urbanism (there are currently over 30 urbanisms in the literature including but not limited to new, sustainable, postmodern, or landscape urbanism) to subscribe to (Steuteville, 2016); topics such as Sustainability, Real Estate Development, Climate Adaptation & Mitigation, Green Building/Neighborhood Practices, Green Infrastructure, Low Impact Development, and Energy Efficient Systems that also impact other design fields, seem to be in the forefront of the urban design practitioners’ and scholars’ agenda. Urban Designers of today are inclined to produce evidence-based (used interchangeably with ‘knowledge-based’ here) solutions through projects, policies, guidelines, plans, etc. in order to shape, preserve, or revitalize the built environment.

Figure.5 West Village District, Dallas, TX image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2006
Figure.5 West Village District, Dallas, TX
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2006

Urban designers of this century are also consumed with design and physical planning issues surrounding multi-modal transportation systems and land-use planning. Balancing mobility choices by designing and planning efficient, effective, and experiential public transportation (especially rail based) and/or vehicular (including autonomous) systems, as well as hike and bike trails and pedestrian networks seem to be in the forefront of some urban designers’ agenda. Unlike most of the previous century, there also seems to be greater focus on the optimization of urban land through more rigorous, efficient, and expressive land-use distribution and allocation by design and physical planning. The UD practices in this century seem to not only encourage utilization of vacant and available land in urban context but also encourage more centralized infill, higher density, mixed-use, and/or transit oriented developments to somewhat address the issues created by city building practices in the 20th century.

Current design and planning practices of this century also made urban designers more aware that urban form and urban landscape is not a product of a single profession, discipline, and/or area of study. In its core, urban design is a discipline and area of practice within the premises of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning that engages many others including (but not limited to) engineering, economics, social, behavioral, and/or environmental sciences. As a result, the act of city making has become more multi-layered, multi-disciplinary, and primarily involving evidence-based (or knowledge based) processes informed by all environmental, economic, social and aesthetic principles. Therefore, comprehensive team efforts driven by remote and mobile technologies, big data, and analytics begin playing a larger role in addressing the complexities that urban designers will tackle in this century.

Figure.6 Streetscapes in Chicago, IL (L), Boston, MA (C), Fort Worth, TX (R) image: Taner R. Ozdil
Figure.6 Streetscapes in Chicago, IL (L), Boston, MA (C), Fort Worth, TX (R)
image: Taner R. Ozdil

One must not get carried away with the interdisciplinary nature of the field given that UD makes its statement as an interrelated but distinct academic field and area of practice. In its core, it requires understanding, education, and application of design which has both tangible and intangible qualities. Although writing codes, ordinances, policies and/or guidelines in a team setting may be part of the job description (and assumed responsibility of some), knowing how to design is the critical first step to consider one’s self as a UD professional.

While the discipline requires intellectual proficiency to understand the built environment and its urban context, the art of placemaking transgresses the divide between the private and public realm unlike other design disciplines. On the other hand, UD practices require adaptation of theories, principles, practices, and processes that entails, in most cases, the programming, act of design, construction, and evaluation similar to other design fields (Zeisel, 1980; Marcus and Francis, 1998; Ozdil, 2008).

A significant portion of UD practices within recent decades (especially among landscape architects) seem to be visioning, schematic design, design development, and/or consensus building among stakeholders and community members. More and more urban designers (landscape architects) are anticipated to be ‘in the driver seat’ in large and complex projects due to their assumed multi-disciplinary understanding and background. Therefore, effective leadership and management skills supported by effective communication and the state of the art visualization skills also become a critical set of qualities for future urban designers.

Figure.7 Oklahoma City Memorial and Downtown, OK image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2011
Figure.7 Oklahoma City Memorial and Downtown, OK
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2011

In conclusion, from the first program established in 1950s, there are now approximately 30+ certificate or master programs and a handful of Doctoral/Ph.D. Programs which provide formal UD education in the US. Most of the UD education in US take shape, often in an ad hoc fashion, under the teachings of one or more of the architecture, landscape architecture, and planning program curriculums (at undergraduate, masters, and/or Ph.D. level). Not surprisingly, but it may be counter intuitive to few landscape architects that there are no licensure requirements for one to practice UD in US.

So, if at some point somebody asks a room full of landscape architects, architects, planners, engineers, etc., ‘Will the Real Urban Designer Please Stand Up,’ take it with a grain of salt and think twice before you act. Realize that one must understand the background, definition, and the common threads connecting the rudimentary theories, processes, principles, and practices of what the term urban design stands for. If one is only equipped with these basic foundations, make sure to take partial ownership, if not full, to this rewarding field and area of practice, especially due in part to the growing environmental concerns shaping its domain in the 21st century.

Figure.8 South Pointe Park Miami, FL image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2014
Figure.8 South Pointe Park Miami, FL
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2014

Our 150  plus years of scholarship and practice also teaches us that landscape architecture professionals should have more confidence in claiming further responsibility in any cross disciplinary collaboration for such UD tasks and projects more than ever, given the landscape architecture professional’s inherent consideration of placemaking and environment by trade. And finally, please always have on the back of your mind that just because anybody can call oneself an urban designer does not mean that they actually are without having the substantiating knowledge, education, and know-how.

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.

Acknowledgement: Thank you Hulya Ozdil for insightful views, comments and edits in this series.

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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