Public Space in Flux: Shaping the Built Environment of the Future

Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, TX, on April, 10, 2020 / image: Taner Ozdil

­As an integral part of community life, public space is essential to the social, physical, mental, and economic health of cities. From urban plazas and community parks to city sidewalks and corners, public space creates a collective sense of community and allows for enhanced social inclusion, civic participation, sense of belonging, and recreation.

But what happens when we’re told that those spaces are no longer safe? Since March 2020, COVID-19 has challenged the civic right to public space and connection, creating a flux in access and experience that will clearly have long-lasting impacts on how landscape architects work within the public realm. As we step out of initial knee-jerk reactions and into yet another wave, what is the role of urban design within the context of this “new normal”?

To see how different cities are responding and how firms and practitioners are adapting and exploring innovative ways to leverage the pandemic and shape the built environment of the future, we asked a cross section of Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) members to share their pandemic experiences and ways in which the industry is rethinking the approach to public space design.

Maren McBride, ASLA — Seattle, WA/Vancouver, BC

In both Seattle and Vancouver, it has been inspiring to see a clear shift in the way that communities have collectively, and proactively, embraced public space—no longer seen as something nice to have, but essential to health and wellbeing. It’s a strong reminder of the incredible responsibility we have, as landscape architects, to create an equitable, sustainable, and resilient public realm that fosters human connection and joy, even in times of crisis.

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Reclaiming Land for Downtown Parks in Dallas

by Taner R. Özdil, Ph.D., ASLA

Downtown Dallas skyline
Downtown Dallas / image: Taner R. Özdil

Vision is Green in Urban Design: Reclaiming Land for Downtown Parks in Dallas

21st century cities are being challenged by significant land and resource allocation and optimization issues requiring balance between the natural and built environment especially in high-density urban areas. Concerns such as population growth, rapid urbanization, climate change, natural resource depletion, extraneous consumption behaviors, and hasty ecological and environmental degradation are increasing new urbanites’ appreciation of the value of nature, land, and open and green space within cities. Recent population trends show that cities now house more than 82% of the population in the United States (The World Bank, 2017). Integrating parks in 21st century downtowns, as part of urban design practice, has become highly desirable, but is often contested by stakeholders. However, it is perhaps the most valuable strategy for reshaping the built environment in urban areas.

Since the turn of the century, increasing environmental awareness coupled with social and economic trends has dramatically affected where people choose to live, work, and play in United States. Downtowns, after half a century of neglect, have become more attractive to members of the aging Baby-Boomers, Gen X, and Millennial generations and young families. There is a growing interest (at least for some segments of the population) and need to return to the traditional centers with smaller housing units and compact environments that have architectural character, pedestrian friendly walkable streets, and the essential elements of a livable community. More importantly, today’s urbanites seem to want both “access to nature” and a “room with a view” within walking distance of employment, housing, and essential services such as parks, grocery stores, schools, and “third places” like restaurants and coffee houses (Reconnecting America, 2017; Florida, 2002).

Even cities like Dallas, the fifth best economically performing large city in US (Jackson, 2019), are not immune to these changes and challenges as available land to provide such amenities and services for future residents is rapidly becoming a scarce commodity. Indeed, the City of Dallas is ranked a dismal 49th out of 100 in the US for park availability/access (Trust for Public Land, 2018). Up until 2013, its downtown has offered only about 8.3 acres of park land per 1,000 residents, whereas the greater city of Dallas offers 22.6 acres of park land for every 1,000 residents (EPS, 2015; Hargreaves Associates, 2013).

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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

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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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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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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