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).

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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

Introduction:
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.

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Better Block is Urban Design

The first Better Block project in Dallas, Texas 2010 image: Jason Roberts
The first Better Block project in Dallas, Texas 2010
image: Jason Roberts

At first, Jason Roberts may appear to be an unlikely ally and friend to landscape architecture professionals. But, for many designers, urbanites, and community activists, that is exactly what he has become. Although he has worn many hats as a musician, IT consultant, and restaurateur, beginning in the early 2000’s, Jason has found what appears to be his true calling: the role of an Urban Activist. Over the past decade, beginning with his home town of Oak Cliff, TX, Jason stopped waiting for others to transform his community. Among various other initiatives, he founded the Oak Cliff Transit Authority and Bike Friendly Oak Cliff in an effort to give his town an operable streetcar and a foothold for a non-recreational cycling community.

Jason and his friends have also collaborated with UT Arlington for various community based initiatives in North Texas while Better Block sponsored demonstrations have spread across the US and beyond. In recent years, their grassroots activities and temporary installations through Better Block continue to transform streets, neighborhoods, and cities across the US. The following post is a snapshot to where Better Block, landscape architecture, and urban design intersects.
-Taner R. Ozdil, Ph.D., ASLA, Associate Professor at UT Arlington, Urban Design PPN Chair

The Better Block Project
by Jason Roberts

The Better Block project started in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas in 2010 when we gathered a small group of neighbors together and rapidly transformed a blighted block of partially vacant storefronts into a European inspired, vibrant corridor.

Our team took the wide street and painted bike lanes, added café seating, painted bright facades and murals on the buildings, and installed temporary businesses like coffee houses, art galleries, and locally made curio shops. We filled the sidewalks with fruit stands, flowers, sandwich board signs, and strung lights between the buildings. After everything was laid out, we began posting the zoning and ordinance rules we were breaking in order to make the place come alive so that everyone would recognize that many of the things that made our street great were illegal or cost prohibitive.

I created the project out of frustration with the typical planning process, and the helpless feelings I had when attempting to get livable and walkable initiatives started in my neighborhood. We had attended so many meetings with experts that had us lay out post-it notes on large maps with our ideas on what should be included in a vibrant street.

Our notes would lead to elaborate watercolor drawings and 3D overlays of how great our new blocks could look. But every time, these plans would sit on shelves or the final development would be bastardized in a way that veered so far from our notes that we became cynical and distrustful of the process itself. Beyond this frustration was the idea that the great place we desired would take us 30 years to build… but we wanted a great place now.
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Urban Design and Tree Planting Spaces

Failed project with inadequate soil volume and tree grates image: James Urban
Failed project with inadequate soil volume and tree grates
image: James Urban

Trees are important to the composition of urban design proposals. Drawings and sections show healthy, mature trees lining streets and punctuating plazas. There is an unspoken conclusion that a street without trees is not a complete street. Yet there is a critical component missing from most of these renderings.

Drawings almost always show the tree magically rising out of the ground plane with no means of support. Typically the sidewalk paving is shown right up to the trunk of the tree, the critical swelling of the trunk flare at the base of each tree above ground is not drawn. Also unspoken is the assumption that the trees will somehow find rooting space. The messy details of how the tree grows are left to the next phase of the design process. To be fair, urban design drawings, particularly the ubiquitous “typical” sections, also omit the building and light pole foundations. These omissions in the beginning of the planning process are to be added as the project moved forward. It is reasonable to assume the engineers and architects will put foundations under buildings and light poles, unseen structures typically built into the very first cost estimates. But sadly and all too often, the tree’s requirements and cost are ignored throughout the entire process.

There are two basic elements of the tree that urban designers must incorporate into their drawings, reports, and cost estimates. These are (1) sufficient soil volume to support the size tree expected to grow and (2) acknowledging the structural requirements of the tree where it meets the ground.

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A Guide to Urban Design Activities at the Annual Meeting

image: T.R. Ozdil
image: T.R. Ozdil

Join Urban Design PPN Members in Chicago!
The ASLA Annual Meeting & EXPO is approaching quickly. Below you will find a preview of the Urban Design PPN Meeting and highlights from urban design related events in Chicago. If you are interested in urban design, please make an effort to join the Urban Design PPN Meeting on Saturday, November 7 for short presentations, discussions, and networking with your fellow members. Don’t forget to ask for your Urban Design PPN pin! The following list includes must attends for Urban Design PPN members:
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Limited Access Roadways, Full Access Neighborhoods

image: Keith Billick
image: Keith Billick

We all know and can understand the benefits and the advantages of limited access roadways, better known as freeways. But, it is the emerging negative impacts that these freeways have on our urban neighborhoods that we are just now beginning to understand.

So how did it all start? The envisioned purpose and need stated in the 1938 Federal-Aid Highway Act was to create a roadway network. A network built to a set of standards that would provide for national defense, as well as to meet the desire and ability of the growing general population to drive longer distances.

After viewing the autobahn, leading highway engineers in the US agreed the German roads were wonderful examples of modern road building, but noted that the network was in predominantly rural areas, serving small amounts of traffic. The engineers were clear that the system in the US would be different, it would be one that served the crowded and congested urban areas. Interregional Freeways, limited to areas where the present and future traffic would justify the infrastructure, these were to be major roadways intended for the purpose of relieving urban traffic congestion. Continue reading

Urban Design at the Annual Meeting

images, clockwise from top left: Keith Billick, Taner Ozdil, and Marc Yeber
images, clockwise from top left: Keith Billick, Taner Ozdil, and Marc Yeber

Join us in Denver!

It’s only a few weeks away: the ASLA Annual Meeting! Below, you’ll find a preview of the Urban Design PPN Meeting, plus highlights from the rest of the Annual Meeting, including selected sessions on urban design from among the 120+ education and field sessions that will be taking place November 21-24 in Denver.

What to Expect at This Year’s Urban Design PPN Meeting

Saturday, November 22
12:45-2:15pm in PPN Room 3 on the EXPO floor

Charting a Path for 2015

Landscape architecture’s role in urban design has become increasingly vital and more defined within the built environment. As a result, planners and developers are looking to landscape professionals to guide and cultivate strategies that not only support environmental sustainability, but also encourage interaction and reinforce authenticity. So what tools do Urban Design PPN members need as leaders and stewards in order to effectively frame the discussion and direct efforts in shaping our cities and towns? How can social media and other digital platforms be more effectively utilized? Are there initiatives that should be explored and presented? This and more will be outlined in the first part of the meeting.

Six Rapid Presentations on Urban Design Framed by Landscape

PechaKucha-style presentations (20 slides, 20 seconds each) will be given by 7 dynamic presenters demonstrating different aspects of urban design which are framed by landscape principles. Listed below are the scheduled presentations.

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The Art and Science of Urban Landscapes

Klyde Warren Park; Dallas; designed by the Office of James Burnett; opened in 2012. An LAF Case Study Investigation (CSI) performance study image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2013
Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, designed by the Office of James Burnett, opened in 2012 — an LAF Case Study Investigation (CSI) performance study
image: Taner R. Ozdil, 2013

The Art and Science of Urban Landscapes—One Performance Study at a Time

As urban areas continue to densify—cities now house more than 50% of the population in the United States—open green space has become a much desired but scarce commodity. The meaning attached to urban landscapes is now much more than its mere aesthetic value. It is the combination of economic, environmental, social and aesthetic implications of landscape projects that creates synergy around landscape architecture as part of urban form and function.

The global ‘environmental awakening,’ especially in the early 2000s, and growing awareness of sustainable and green design practices across design and planning fields made us 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. Such developments reminded both academia and practitioners that there are two sides (“the art” and “the science”) to understanding, designing, constructing and managing landscapes, and landscape architecture professionals have the opportunity to be in the forefront of this discussion with well-established, knowledge-based practices, especially in complex urban settings.

Investigating landscape performance and learning from past lessons has become a necessary dimension of landscape architecture, not only to reduce the gap between academia and practitioners, but also to promote the impact of the field as part of urban design. It is critical to subscribe to the phrase “the art and science” more than ever to elevate our roles and to better understand and shape the built environment.

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What’s Next for Sunbelt Cities?

image: Yao Lin and Taner R. Ozdil
image: Yao Lin and Taner R. Ozdil

Why it’s Time to Start Thinking about TODistricts

Great places we all seem to love and cherish are not typically a product of a single architectural style, ownership, project, or time. They are a mixture of design components and human conditions aged over time with culture, identity, and spirit. Although the professional act of placemaking belongs to all landscape architecture, architecture, and urban planning fields (as well as other allied fields), urban design as an academic field and area of professional activity covers the heart of the design activities that involve multiple buildings, open spaces, and ownerships (i.e. public and private). Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) are designed in relation to multi-modal and public transportation. Creating TODs—one of urban designers’ means of placemaking—has gained momentum in recent decades, especially in Sunbelt cities.

TODs are seen as opportunities for cities to create centers, nodes, or hubs of activity with a strong sense of place for the built environment. However, until now, TOD practice has emphasized limited, fragmented development patterns and partial stakeholder views, neglecting the greater urban form for the contemporary city. The purpose of this position piece is to revisit the term and the established scope of development practices around transit in order to better situate such placemaking activities within the broader framework of urban design practices. This article introduces the term Transit Oriented District (TODistrict), defined as the whole area within a half mile walking distance of a transit station, and reviews critical components of such district-level efforts. In light of research conducted on North Texas, the article discusses the relevance of the issue and offers lessons for developments and districts in Sunbelt cities and beyond to better inform the planning, design, and implementation processes and practices for future TODistricts.

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Time to Gear Up for Park(ing) Day 2013

PARK(ing) Day 2012 in Raleigh, NC image: North Carolina State University's Student ASLA Chapter
PARK(ing) Day 2012 in Raleigh, NC
image: North Carolina State University’s Student ASLA Chapter

“Providing temporary public open space . . . one parking spot at at time.”

PARK(ing) Day, an annual event where parking spots are repurposed as pop-up parks and public spaces, is set for Friday, September 20, 2013. After starting out in 2005 with a single site in San Francisco, PARK(ing) Day has grown into a worldwide celebration of the potential for urban green space to take root, however briefly, on any available patch of pavement.

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Cooperative Housing: An American Dream, Revisited

Columbia Ecovillage in Portland, ORimage: www.columbiaecovillage.org
Columbia Ecovillage in Portland, OR
image: http://www.columbiaecovillage.org

If, like me, you are already biking to work, growing kale in your yard, and composting your carrot peels, then you may be asking, “What more can I do to address our country’s social, economic, and environmental challenges?”  One answer may be cooperative housing (or cohousing) – a people oriented solution to many of the social, economic, and environmental impacts of typical automobile oriented, single-family suburban sprawl (a.k.a. the “American Dream).  Although much of current US policy and practice continue to favor suburban development, “the times, they are a changing”.

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New Book: Urban Gardening for Dummies

Urban Gardening for Dummiesimage: Paul Simon
Urban Gardening for Dummies
image: Paul Simon

One of our very own PPN members, Paul Simon, is happy to announce the publication of a new book he co-authored: Urban Gardening for Dummies.

The authors provide a complete A-Z guide for the urban gardener.  Topics include preparing urban soil conditions, how to plant, where you can plant, and the many types of plantings suitable for urban gardens. And, of course urban edibles are especially covered.  You will also learn some techniques from reducing air and water pollution, how gardens may reduce crime, increase property values, and contribute to healthier, improved neighborhoods.

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Free Urban Design Resources from ‘Across the Pond’

TOD Station Concept, Aberdeen, MDimage: Parsons Brinckerhoff
TOD Station Concept, Aberdeen, MD
image: Parsons Brinckerhoff

Thank You, Prince Charles!

Landscape architects tend to be excellent generalists, but how well are we trained in the specialized art and science of “urban design”?  A decade ago, a change in employment inspired me to strengthen my urban design knowledge, and in the process, discover a wonderful resource from the United Kingdom (UK).

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The Spaniel in the Spirea

Dog pads in South Lake Union Seattle image: Dean Koonts
Dog pads in South Lake Union Seattle
image: Dean Koonts

On my twenty minute walk to work through the streets of downtown Seattle in the morning, I came across an adorable and very well-trained Spaniel with her owner.  She kept exactly to her owner’s side; no pulling on the leash, no jumping on strangers, no barking at pedestrians. She sat at the intersection patiently waiting for the traffic signal to change and continue her journey through the concrete wilderness. Being impressed that this owner obviously took the time to train his dog well, I witnessed the inevitable doggie squat and deposit — and then the pair just kept on walking. No doggie bag, no pooper-scooper, no acknowledgement that they littered the sidewalk. Unfortunately, this is a common scene in less crowded streets that lack the social pressure of the many eyes of passers-by. “So what’s the big deal?” you might be thinking, and “How does this relate to urban landscapes and design?” Great questions. Let’s build the case starting with that first question.

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Reconnect Urban Communities and Environmental Systems

Floodplain at Allegheny Riverfront Park
Floodplain at Allegheny Riverfront Park
image: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

In recent years, authors and educators have identified a growing gap between urban culture and the natural processes that sustain it.  The internet and other technologies provide instantaneous access to once-elusive environmental processes, eliminating the need for natural exploration.

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Wayfinding: The Value of Knowing How to Get There

Identifying gateway locations that relate to the surrounding scale, background, foreground and day and night visibility is critical to a complete wayfinding system.
image: MERJE Design

Planners, business associations, governments, visitors, and residents are becoming more aware of the importance of attractive and informative wayfinding signage to help them steer through the complexities and appreciate the changing environment of a city setting. Incorporating a signage and wayfinding system as part of the planning process is critical to the effectiveness of an overall revitalization strategy.

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New Urbanism vs. Landscape Urbanism

Vickery Master Plan
Vickery Master Plan
image: Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh & Associates

A “street” fight has begun between proponents of New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism. New Urbanism is a movement known for promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and sustainable communities as an alternative to suburban sprawl. Landscape urbanism focuses on landscape as the organizing element for urban space. As someone who is both a new urbanist and a landscape architect, I feel the need to come to the aid of New Urbanism.

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Redefining Urban Design: a Barrio in Caracas

Image: Enlace Arquitectura. Copyright 2011, all rights reserved
Image: Enlace Arquitectura. Copyright 2011, all rights reserved

Sometimes your education, training, and experience cannot prepare you for a project, no matter how much expertise you believe you may have. Such was my circumstance when I first encountered the barrio of La Moran in Caracas, Venezuela.  Instead of being the professional, I became the student who learned that a place with makeshift dwellings and an apparent chaotic fabric can actually be a functional and congruent neighborhood.
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To vegetable or not to vegetable…Citizens revolt!

Front Yard Vegetable Garden
Front Yard Vegetable Garden
image: The Agitator

You can’t have a lifestyle trend such as urban farming or edible frontyards without some controversy. Did you know that there really are many cities and towns with old bylaws or zoning codes that prohibit a person from actually eating any food they grow in their own yard!  While some cities such as San Francisco, New York, Baltimore, Seattle and Detroit have begun to change laws and policy in support of urban agriculture, and as this trend continues to thrive because of food safety and security issues, the growing foodie locavore movement and urban hipster cred, many citizens in other cities and towns have been threatend with jail time or fines for planting a garden or organic farm on their own property.

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Identity, Streetscapes and Regional Rail in Taipei, Taiwan

Looking out the window while riding the Taipei Metro Rail
Looking out the window while riding the Taipei Metro Rail
image: Sarah Kathleen Peck

In less than 30 years, Taipei, Taiwan has undergone significant transformation in its cultural identity, its urban design, and its regional transportation systems. Taipei, the largest city of Taiwan, lies on the Danshui River 25 kilometers across the Taiwan Strait from China. Taipei City has approximately 2.6 million residents, and the metropolitan region has just shy of 7 million people. While Taipei is not the largest city in the world by any stretch of the imagination, the city is one of the most densely packed, due to the natural hilly topography and limited areas upon which to build city structures.

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Can Urban Farms Translate Popularity Into Profitability?

Chicago Urban Farm
Chicago Urban Farm
image: Wikipedia

In the recent post, A Growing Concern, in The Earth Island Journal, Sena Christian raises legitimate questions about the national urban agriculture movement. She states that farms and community gardens in city centers seem to have struck a chord with the American public and have become media darlings attracting big grants from major philanthropies and the support of upscale chefs.

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Balancing and integrating safe access and habitat protection – the Safe Trestle competition

The Wave Team Safe Trestles Phase Two
The Wave Team Safe Trestles Phase Two
image: Architecture for Humanity

Architecture for Humanity is a nonprofit organization with the mission of building a more sustainable future through the power of professional design. Often using competitions as a platform for innovative ideas and projects AFH launched its first landscape based competition earlier this year ‘ Safe Trestle’.

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