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Design School for Decision Makers

This article was written by Justus Stewart in January 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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 They are designed with expectations of transportation, energy needs, and economic relationships that are badly out of date.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.)

(Creative Commons Photo Credit)

How Do We Share Design Innovation in Cities? is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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