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How Do We Share Design Innovation in Cities?
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By Justus Stewart

To walk down the streets of a major US city is to experience the impacts of decades of bad design, in streets and sidewalks, in architecture, in density and use of space. . I do not use the word design as some subjective stand-in for ‘what I like’ (though aesthetics are a valid basis for criticism); I mean design for the future, design for human beings. Our cities are designed with an overwhelming bias towards the needs of automobiles, rather than people. They are designed with expectations of transportation, energy needs, and economic relationships that are badly out of date. They are often designed against known practices in what makes cities more livable, more beautiful, and more functional – cities that might survive this wildly unpredictable century.

What led me to a career in urban design & planning was the question – why? Why are modern cities – or at least the modern parts of cities – so poorly designed? The answer is obvious, of course, though it took me years to appreciate it fully: the people who make the decisions don’t understand design, and the people who understand design don’t make the decisions. Forgive me if that seems a touch reductionist, but it is essentially true.

What we need in cities is a mechanism for these two groups to come together. We need a meaningful dialogue between the politicians, developers, and engineers – the decision makers – and the urban designers, planners, and urban ecologists – who understand design and its impacts. Such dialogue is needed in general, but I am talking about a specific mechanism to discuss a specific issue, the design and function of a specific city.

My idea for such a mechanism is a funded training center – an institute – for urban design, which offers short, intense courses for developers, city engineers, and other decision makers to learn what makes a city function, from the perspective of human beings and other life.

This idea is inspired in part by the Mayor’s Institute on City Design, the brainchild of Joseph Riley, a whip-smart southern gentleman who has been the mayor of Charleston, SC for 32 years (the other is the pioneering work of Holly Whyte, in NYC). But I am proposing an institute in every city, which convenes local politicians not only when they have a design ‘issue’ (as the Mayor’s Institute does) but to prevent those issues in the first place. The design institute would offer education and examples about urban design fundamentals – what makes a public plaza work, what makes a street pedestrian-friendly, what makes a neighborhood livable – to those who are actually zoning, approving, building, and planning our cities. It would also provide a forum for a discussion on green design – teaching green building to the policy-makers that set building codes, and green infrastructure to the city’s engineering department. Not only would it breed better design, but since these classes would be collaborative, it could help to reduce the ‘silo’ mentality that is still pervasive in local governments.

How would it work? Why would these people go? How would you pay for it? Don’t developers already use design firms for their projects – why are the resulting projects badly designed?* I have answers for all of these questions, but I am more interested in your input. What do you think of the idea? How could it be made to work? How would you resolve these and other issues?
One thought I had is a simple incentive: those who had gone through the classes would be accredited, and could undertake certain projects that firms, agencies, or project managers who had not done the trainings could not apply for. Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

*(On this issue, in particular, it important to note that I am not discussing grand projects here, but the everyday design of the city, and that I am especially interested in improving the design of public spaces and public projects – or projects intended for public interaction.)

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This need is even all the more urgent in developing countries, where ultra-rapid urbanization, as well as (very severe) appropriation of both bad and completely derivative design, are happening very fast.

I think an interesting question here is how to make such an effort work in third-world countries such as my own, where zoning is all the more arbitrary and little documentation is done on pre-"urban development" ecosystems.

The local knowledge-bearers themselves on sustainable urban design are few and far in between, and we are without any models (such as the Institute, for your country) that are relatively ready to scale up.

Posted by: BVM on 12 Jan 08

I agree with the kernel of your assessment - those who know, can't. Those who can, don't know. On a philosophical note, what role do you think entrenched interests play? I work for a city myself and one of the 'entrenchments' I see (there and elsewhere) is the division between 'capital' and 'operating' budgets. Practices that are 'greener' or are more costly up front but demonstrably less expensive to operate and maintain (and may have greater amenities) are still given the cold shoulder. Or at least it seems like there is a much higher bar than for 'traditional' designs. How would you resolve this dilema? Its more than just the know-how you encourage (and I agree with), its also a structural way of thinking and accounting for things. How do we change that?

Posted by: Margaret B on 13 Jan 08


Lack of communication between the various urban planning discipline silos (water, land use, transportation, air, energy, environment, etc.) is one obsticle to getting those who know but can't (designers) together with those who can but don't know (decision makers). Often, solutions for one disciple may have an unintended consequence in another.

An equal hurdle is that education on solutions must include the decision makers and the ones who put them their... the voting public. The creation of design institutes in each community might be advanced by leveraging what is already out on the Internet. Categorizing the varied solutions from different disciplines for building smart, sustainable, livable communities in a manner more useful to each individual community could form a defacto online institute that is completely accesible to the voting public.

One of the biggiest local problems with applying what is on the web today is scaleability. Unfortunately, one size solutions don't fit all. Even when the solution does fit, eventually the community will out grow it and must retrofit a new solution onto a landscape designed for a smaller community based on outdated 20 year planning horizion. A unified field theory for Urban Development is needed that provides a set of progressive, scaleable, context sensitive, multi-discipline solutions for all communities organized primarily on community size. A searchable database of solutions needs to be global in scope, and self maintaining and proliferating, to promote education on what works best.

For example, in the U.S. Southwest, urban development is a product of 150-years of wild-west land rush style real estate speculation and an unusually wealthy economy that for 50-years has strived to garantee a house, 2+cars, and free parking for everyone, everywhere, anytime. It has resulted in a standard of living and level of convience never seen before on the planet. It has also resulted in over 70% of the landscape being dominated automobile uses, including the largest room in every home. Unfortunately, it does not appear sustainable, nor duplicateable, but it often serves as an archeatype for profitable realestate enterprises worldwide.

As a transportation modeler for a Metropolitan Area on the fringe of the L.A. Megalopolis, analysis is beginning to reveal that once an urban area begins to exceed 500,000 it cannot build roads and freeways wide enough to prevent traffic congestion. However, light rail transit in the U.S. is not considered financially viable until the metropolis reaches 1 million people. In postwar low-density sprawling communities, abundant with parking lots so large they only fill up twice a year (the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas), suburbanites are destined to be stuck in traffic with no viable alternative transit solution, because the transit buses that are suppose to relieve the traffic, are stuck in the very same traffic.

A key focus of an online urban institute should be a widely accesible tool box that provides solutions for communities at all stages of development, with a focus on scalability. Communities of 10k, 50k, 100k, 500k, 1M, 25M, etc... should be able to call up design solutions that fit thier needs and that are scaleable to the next solution when they eventually grow in size or bump up against their neighbor.

Example of a Scaleable Soution - In the Suburban Western U.S., Bus Rapid Trasit (BRT) is being touted as a transitional solution between fixed route busses and on-street light rail. The BRTs can have dedicated lanes on freeways and surface streets that are only operational during the peak traffic periods. This would create a visual advertisment for using the transit system as the bus speeds by, while single occupant vehicles are stuck in traffic. As use of the bus grows, additional buses could be added until multiple busses are passing every couple of minutes. At that level of ridership, there should be enough revenue to bond for a light rail system that can add enough rail passenger cars to a train set that it can carry the equivilent of 16-lanes of commuter traffic on a 2-lane right-of-way. These increases in ridership can only occur by infilling and building up in existing urban areas rather than just on the fringe.

With world population not peaking until 2100, the challange will be where to place the next 5-10 billion people in an efficient, sustainable manner. The world cannot afford to sustain the model of communities like Irvine, CA w/16-lane freeways and 6 to 8-lane arterials that only result in a community that you can't get around in during peak travel times.

Ekistics - the study of urbaninzaiton - might make a good framework for classifying solutions by size and provide a unified field theory for cataloging design solutions world wide. Ekistics has classified urban areas by size and spawned terms like "conurbation" which describes how communities grow together into one megalopolis. The organization of solutions for urban development under the framework of a theory such as Ekistics may go a long way toward educating both the decision makers and the public on good design in urban planning that best fits there community. In addition, it may provide for a common language the spans disciplines and breaks down the silos.

Posted by: Rob Ball on 13 Jan 08

An excellent idea, but perhaps better approached by addressing hearts and minds so that we work collaboratively anyway by nature (rather than the opposite at the moment) . This needs the principles of integration to be a key part of built environment education.

The notion of making this a prequal issue is again excellent - understanding how a particular city, town or region works is essential in delivering requirements, and would move to a more local supply base for design, construction and fm. A benefit aligned to Community Based FM (CBfM) and the Transition Towns approaches.

An approach our (UK) local authorities and councils should consider perhaps. Add in the merton rule to the equation - ie understanding the local specific onsite renewable energy requirements and opportunites - and this could be a powerful way forward.

Posted by: fairsnape on 14 Jan 08

Thanks for your comments – I appreciate the dialogue on the idea. Some thoughts…

BVM: You’re right to point out my idea is ‘northern’ focused (all the work I do relates to reducing resource use in the global north). I’m ignorant of what a good model for your (unnamed) city might be, but I suggest that the place to start is with the difficult task of stopping the derivative design, and looking for locally-inspired ideas. There might be more design knowledge than you realize, which can be translated by professional designers and engineers. I don’t have a replacement for the Institute model, but a key is engaging this idea – at first – in a class-like atmosphere, where bold ideas have more credibility.

Margaret: as with everything in city politics, entrenched interests and ways of thinking play a huge role. Part of the concept – as mentioned in the above paragraph – is to engage the idea in a fairly isolated setting (no lobbyists) where ideas are allowed to fly a little more freely. The goal is as much to challenge the mentality that produces the design as to learn new design techniques.
You have a good point about budgets; all sorts of things need rearranging to accomplish good green urban design: the project bidding process; pay-to-play development approval; outdated codes; etc. But it’s possible that pursuing good design might reveal the policies that stand in its way…

Rob: I might regret opening with such a jaded statement, but my experience is that the voting public is happy, for the time being, to avoid such cumbersome education as complex urban design issues. I think they typically want their elected officials to do it, and do it right; this may be an unfair thing to ask, but I do think it’s more practical to educate the decision makers – who act on the public’s behalf – than to try to educate the entire public.
There is an important step here beyond just sharing knowledge, which is implementation. The goal of teaching the decision-makers (at least at first) is that they actually fund, approve, and build the stuff. A public better informed about urban design solutions might advocate better ideas than what we have now, but public participation is already poor, so there are more steps needed here than just providing information.

To the extent that information can be translated into civic action, it would be brilliant to have integrated design ideas available – I especially like the idea of breaking them down by community type. As you say, one size does not fit all, and both regulation and design are better served with some sensitivity to context. I think you should look into implementation of your idea: “A searchable database of solutions… global in scope, and self maintaining and proliferating, to promote education on what works best.” Green urban design wiki! I love it!

The global aspect would provide some perspective – as you say: “The world cannot afford to sustain the model of communities like Irvine…” In point of fact, there are currently no cities in the US that the world can sustain; not Portland, not New York. I don’t know of a single one.

Prof. Snape:) ‘hearts and minds’ is an essential aspect of sustainable development going forward, but orders of magnitude more difficult and time-consuming than changes to the physical context of our environment. It is there, I believe, that we need to start – the rest may follow, or we may need to keep working at it. But you are certainly right, that local knowledge is key to making urban design work.

Posted by: justus on 15 Jan 08

Earthship design principals are certainly a good choice,

In terms of getting landscaping and urban design to be recognised as relevant, well one way could be to show people where large-scale and integrative design principals have already been used,

and also explain in easily understood ways what the basis for holistic design is,

Posted by: zupakomputer on 16 Jan 08

check out these sites for more information on "Traditional Neighborhood Design" and "New Urbanism"

Posted by: Dina on 21 Jan 08

One of the key concepts in green buildings needs to be the operational performance of the building. O+M (Operations + Maintenance)for buildings are usually 6-15x higher than front-end costs (LCC calcs). When we see O+M data 3+ years after a green building is built, then we can see how green they really are. And then there's benchmarking and measurement standards that need to be developed. When will someone wake up to this reality about green buildings? They may be cool designs and aesthetics and materials, but how do they FUNCTION?

Posted by: Fred Klammt on 23 Jan 08

"Site specific" is the key. We, as designers and architects, understand that our designs are laid upon a site, but do we understand that that site must be able to accept our design? I may annoy some who think I preach beyond the call but really, a lot of 'enviromentaly sustainable design' is theoretically imposed design.
Let go of the notion that civic interests might have to be served and embrace the notion that enviromentaly your design has merit beyond a percieved level of HUMAN comfort, and you will find a whole other level of parameter opening up.
I might sound like a rat bag but I can't countenance the idea that human comfort does not include having to put on a woollen jumper occaisionally.
I have teenage daughters who think that putting on a wollen jumper is some sort of third world mark of poverty. Well f'ing excuse me, but if your design fits within the tempeture differentials whereby your client might have to don a woolly jumper at the changeover of the seasons, well you damn well stick by it and you sort out their prima donna problems, with a little homespun truth. Now is not the time to indulge in pathetic little "airconditioning solutions"

Posted by: simon seasons on 24 Jan 08



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