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Book Review of Urban Design for an Urban Century

  Published in edited form in The Architect's Newspaper  
  September 23, 2009  


  Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People
Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, Oliver Gillham
Wiley, 2009


A precise definition of Urban Design is elusive, as it has been since the term’s first articulation over 50 years ago at a Harvard GSD conference spearheaded by José Lluis Sert. Today the term, like sustainability, is batted about leisurely by architecture firms and the media, pointing towards an interpretation that favors architects and their super-sized projects. While practitioners of the quasi-discipline are typically seen to fall somewhere between planning’s public policy and architecture’s formal concerns, the urban designer’s role in the process of development is often misunderstood and many times questioned. Urban Design for an Urban Century takes steps towards clarifying the role of urban design and the urban designer in shaping urban places.

The book is the product of New York-based professor and practitioner Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon of Boston-based Goody, Clancy & Associates, and the late architect and planner Oliver Gillham. The authors begin the book by acknowledging the ambiguity of the urban designer’s job, determining that a shared emphasis on “finding the right fit between people and place” predominates. In illustration of this common thread they collect all 70 winning projects of the AIA Institute Honor Awards for Regional and Urban Design over the last ten years, commenting on these relative to a handful of principles the authors generated in their review: building community, advancing sustainability, expanding individual choices, enhancing public health, and making places for people.

Case studies are grouped into seven areas: regional growth, downtowns, older neighborhoods, new neighborhoods, waterfronts, the public realm, and campuses. It is clear from these divisions that one long-held purview of the urban designer, the public realm, is not the sole area of concern. Streetscapes and plazas and their accessory elements (furniture, signage, trees, etc.) are still addressed by urban designers, but so are land use, bulk, density, form, transportation, and ecology. Much of this expanded scope normally falls to planners and local jurisdictions, a characteristic pointing towards the urban designer’s role in formalizing public policy and/or private development at an early stage. Chicago’s award-winning Lakeshore East Master Plan by SOM is a fitting example of urban design’s malleability. The plan is a guideline for future action by other actors, namely architects and their clients, following developed rules of land use, massing, and site coverage. Most notable is Studio Gang’s distinctive, 80-story Aqua Tower, a distinctive design marked by undulating terraces hardly foreshadowed by SOM’s Rockefeller Center-esque imagery.

Preceding the case studies and principles are an excellent, concise history of urban morphology and the decentralization of cities, a call for recentralization (echoing Sert’s assertion for the same a half-century ago), and the authors’ crack at defining urban design. Brown, Dixon, and Gillham’s definition outlines three characteristics: multi-disciplinary collaboration, outreach to stakeholders, and the enhancement of economic, social, and environmental realms. These broad concerns insufficiently portray what an urban designer actually does, but a review of the case studies points to placemaking generated by buildings, particularly via their form, size, and style. But instead of falling prey to ever-popular form-based codes, the authors attempt to steer the reader away from aesthetics and towards sustainability, social equity, the health of the common realm, and other concerns.

Defining urban design is difficult primarily because the discipline has one foot planted in policy and the other rooted in physical form. The natural pull one way or the other is obviated by the actual situation in which the urban designer works. Kevin Lynch’s assertion, quoted in the first chapter, that urban design “comes down to the management of change” points us in the right direction. Keen to the impact of policies on a diverse public and equally to design’s role in placemaking, urban designers are able to synthesize the concerns of the competing forces shaping cities today. Ideally, with an emphasis on process and change, issues like a questioning of consumption’s role in the social life of cities and our relationship to nature and its processes will take precedence over many of the traditional concerns found here. Brown, Dixon and Gillham are aware of the need for social and ecological balance, but their admirable book-length explication remains grounded in practice, as are the case studies that make up for in diversity what they lack in vision.


:: Text John Hill

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