Urban Design Playbook

Alexander Cooper, FAIA

In April 1979, a short article appeared in The Livable City, a publication of the Municipal Art Society, entitled "What Does an Urban Designer Do?" It aimed to distinguish the discipline of urban design from those of architecture and planning with which it is often confused. It posited that "the urban designer's point of view on any project is: what is its effect on the non-user, those outside the property lines, the passerby?" The article further suggested that there are three components of urban design: (1) movement systems, (2) spatial relationships, and (3) activity patterns.

Movement systems, in particular, are the heart, soul, and structure of cities. They carry automobiles, trucks, trains, buses, bicycles and pedestrians. They can vary from wide boulevards to narrow one-way streets; from skinny alleys to broad promenades; and from invisible subway lines to monumental bridges. Movement systems establish the pace and tempo of a city.

Every city has a distinct physical character established by the spatial relationship between its buildings (their shape, sizes, widths, and heights) and its open spaces (parks, lots, yards, and streets). It is generally the zoning resolution that organizes and then protects the patterns that evolve over time. New York is a city that builds to its property lines: its narrow side streets are built low and its wide avenues high. (When that process is not followed, the results can be disastrous.)

Combine the movement system with spatial relationships and you have places where activities can logically (or illogically) happen. These places can be neighborhoods (business, residential, manufacturing), parks (regional, pocket), waterfronts (ocean, harbor, lakes, river, canals), or even streets. The urban designer oversees the fit of various activities to their appropriate places. Certain activities (protests, violence, fires) will alter the normalcy of place, perhaps forever, while other interventions, like urban pedestrian skywalks, can disrupt traditional systems irretrievably.

This, then, has been the art (and science) of urban design for the past 40 years: (1) make streets livable and beautiful; (2) make the massing of buildings harmonious; and (3) make open spaces accessible and usable for everyone. The audience for responsible city design is all of its people: residents, workers, and visitors. The urban design agenda for 2015, however, has expanded substantially from that of 1979. There are now many caretakers, both governmental and civic, that oversee some of the design issues that formerly dominated urban designers' attention. We now must also focus on climate, infrastructure, inequality, community and energy, and these physical, social and cultural conditions are both more global and less manageable than previously. We are as attuned to Ethiopia as to the Bronx; to Syria as to Staten Island, and the Internet has connected us to fresh ideas from Australia and China as well as fresh images from the Hubble telescope.

As our roles and tasks have been altered, so have the tools with which we work. Computer modeling, 3-D printing, and Revit are now the norms. And the process of developing and implementing urban design ideas has been reshaped: we no longer design and then "outreach" TO constituents and stakeholders, but rather we "engage" and design WITH all other stakeholders.

At the top of any list of new critical issues is climate change. While the subject remains contentious to some, city, state, and federal agencies, as well as foundations and international institutions, are exploring and funding efforts to determine and address future conditions. Katrina and Sandy have elevated alarm and stimulated action. Urban designers can design and develop barriers, both built and natural, to contain and channel the flow of water in a way which doesn't compromise the quality of life adjacent to them.

Almost as punishing is the rise of heat levels with consequent droughts and fires. Urban designers must promote cooling devices for all conditions: waterwalls can be as effective as fountains; extensive tree planting can cool sidewalks as well as streets; paving materials, whether cement or stone, can be non-reflective and cooling rather than warming, and color can be soothing and create a sense of calm. Landscapes can be more drought-tolerant, and traditional building details such as arcades, overhangs, non-reflective windows and even simple awnings can be used far more widely than they are today.

Beyond climate change, deteriorating infrastructure should be another urgent focus. While the initial cost of new, large-scale facilities can be daunting, much of our physical plant is aging and its deferred maintenance can be even more expensive. Bridges and tunnels can be modified to accommodate more lanes. Even power plants can be made more welcoming, and subway cars, buses, trucks, and taxicabs more humane and beautiful.

Inequality is pervasive, and urban design must contribute to elevating the quality of the environment and the public goods for the less fortunate. Affordable housing is now a mandate as is other specialized housing for the homeless and particularly for the elderly. As the age of the population rises, the design of specialized communities becomes more important. The newly emerging retiree communities must meet highest standards of healthcare, social engagement, and universal design.

Energy receives constant attention from all media even as reliance on foreign supplies diminishes. Alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind are becoming more widespread and effective. Carbon emissions are reducing, the viability of the national grid appears secure, and the Tesla outperforms all its competitors. Clean energy is an accepted goal nationally and consequently health in most communities is improving. Urban design has been on the edges of energy improvements, yet much can still be done. The persistence of overhead electric wires continues to mar the urban landscape. They are dangerous, ugly, and unnecessary and should be eliminated. As yet, there are no clear design standards for electric charging stations for automobiles, which will be nationwide within only a few years. The concept of nighttime deliveries by trucks remains elusive even though its transformative effects on daytime traffic would be wildly beneficial. And new energy facilities should be designed as showcases, inviting people in to discover the process of supply and demand and the positive benefits of cleaner air.

The practice of urban design has evolved over the past forty years. The provenance remains unchanged: thoughtful place-making, responsible city design and innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Taking the broadest and narrowest views of how things work at the same time is what we do. The awareness of urban design principles and impacts has become commonplace. Since most communities have become highly sophisticated at stating and then achieving their priorities, urban designers need to effectively communicate their findings, conclusions, and expected political outcomes. The ability to listen is as valuable as the ability to draw; to do research as valuable as experience; and to be strategic as valuable as being artistic.

September 2015