University of Michigan
Marilyn Taylor (Chair)
The paper begins with a critique of contemporary urban design: The field of urban design is vague because it is conceived as an ambiguous amalgam of several disciplines, including architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and civil engineering; it is superficial because it is obsessed with impressions and aesthetics of physical form; and it is practiced as an extension of architecture, which often implies an exaggerated emphasis on the end product. The paper then proposes a meaningful approach (i.e., truly consequential to improved quality of life) to urban design, which consists of: being teleological (i.e., driven by purposes rather than defined by conventional disciplines); being catalytic (i.e., generating or contributing to long-term socioeconomic development processes); and being relevant (i.e., grounded in first causes and pertinent human values). The argument is supported with a number of case studies of exemplary urban designers and urban design projects from around the world. Finally, the paper concludes with an outline of future directions in urban design, including criteria for successful urban design projects (e.g., aesthetics, function, impact) and a pedagogical approach (e.g., interdisciplinary, in-depth, problem-driven).
We are currently witnessing an urban revival. This is demonstrated by renewed interest in revitalizing inner cities; an expanding market for urban housing; the prominence of cities in popular magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and in popular television programs such as Friends and Seinfeld; a resurgence of urban design curricula at leading educational institutions such as Berkeley and SCI-Arc; and an influx of international urban design journals including the Journal of Urban Design, Urban Design International, and Urban Design Quarterly. Seminal books, including The Next American Metropolis, Great Streets, and Post-Modern Urbanism, have attracted much attention in the past decade. Several large-scale urban projects are being built, including stadiums and casinos in the city of Detroit, the new Getty Center in Los Angeles, neotraditional residential developments all over the United States, the Docklands in London, the new airport in Hong Kong, and massive urban redevelopment in Berlin and Beirut, to name only a few.
The conventional approach to defining the field of urban design is morphological; that is, according to the way it is structured and organized. Thus, urban design is often regarded as an ambiguous combination of architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, and civil engineering. This definition puts urban designers at odds—over power and resources—with architects, planners, landscape architects, and civil engineers, and thereby dilutes the powerful role urban design can potentially play in the unfolding of cities. Furthermore, much of the recent interest in urban design repeats the familiar deficiencies of the past, such as: a focus on the superficial aesthetics and the picturesque aspects of cities, an overemphasis on the architect as urban designer and an obsession with design, an understanding of urban design primarily as a finished product, and a pedagogical process that is comfortably rooted in architecture and design (e.g., matters of visual composition).
One major problem with current urban design thought and practice is the sense that it is architecture, only at a larger scale and within an urban context. In this school of thought, there is far too much emphasis on the “design,” and not enough of an understanding of the “urban.” Attempting to design a city as one designs a building is clearly misleading and dangerous, because unlike individual buildings, which tend to be objects, cities are highly complex, large-scale, active entities, and contain a bewildering multiplicity of communities. Few contemporary urban designers demonstrate a fundamental understanding of the complex ways in which cities function. Especially glaring is the naiveté of contemporary urban designers vis-à-vis power structures and decision-making processes, dominated as they are by politicians, bureaucrats, corporations, developers, and interest groups.
I propose a meaningful approach to urban design; that is, an approach that is truly consequential in improving the essential qualities of life. The approach consists of being teleological, that is, driven by purpose rather than defined by disciplines; being catalytic, that is, generating or contributing to long-term development processes; and being relevant, that is, grounded in first causes and pertinent human values. In my view, urban design is driven by the purpose of addressing fundamental urban challenges, circumscribed by urban scale and complexity, and rests upon an interdisciplinary set of skills, methodologies, and bodies of knowledge.
Urban design is an ongoing process with built form products such as open spaces, building complexes, and districts along the way. Primarily, however, it is a stimulus to other goals which are more critical to society and to the substantive challenges facing contemporary cities. These goals include community empowerment and social integration, inner city revitalization, cross-cultural learning and collaboration, effective land use, and a wider range of urban form choices for citizens.
Specifically, a teleological urban design would address three critical aspects of the urban experience, which are the relationships between the city and the economy, the city and society, and the city and power. The relationship between the city and the economy considers the economic functioning of the city, including the city as a point in the production landscape as well as a site of investment, the changing international division of labor, and the consequent effects on the specific urban economies. The relationship between the city and society focuses on the city as an arena of social interaction, the distribution of social groups, residential segregation, the construction of gender and ethnic identities, and patterns of class formation. The relationship between the city and power is the representation of urban structure and political power and considers the city to be a system of communication, a recorder of the distribution of power, and an arena for the social struggles over the meaning and substance of the urban experience.
Urban design projects and processes would generate or contribute significantly to three types of socioeconomic development processes while enhancing the built environment of cities: community development, economic development, and international development.
Urban design as a catalyst for community development consists of intelligent community participation in projects, facilitated by: dialogue between community representatives and urban designers; community leadership, which is representative of broader community views; institutional partnerships, for example between private and nonprofit sectors; decision-making systems such as simulations and games; and the soft programming of urban design, like the incorporation of public art into projects, and the integration of designed activities, events, programs, and services integrated into built form.
For the urban designer, design communication is inherent in the act of design, both as internal communication in the thinking process, and as an external communication with the client, user, or broader community. The people within a given context, such as homeowners in a residential neighborhood or business owners in a commercial downtown, are the agents of change, aided by a communication process that speaks to the formal aspects of their environment. The better this communication process of design, the higher level of public awareness and sense of ownership, the better the internal decisions of change. There are conventional public involvement formats such as public hearings, city council meetings, and planning commission presentations. There are also informal meetings, workshops, and brainstorming sessions. One of the most powerful and effective mechanisms for active and intelligent community participation is the charrette.
A charrette is a short and intense workshop, of a day or at the most a few days, in which the urban design team works with a local community and its social, economic, or political leaders to arrive at a conceptual and implementation strategy for a particular project.  The process usually begins with a consortium of local citizens and organizations inviting a team of private (e.g., an architectural firm) or nonprofit (e.g., the American Institute of Architects) urban designers to participate, often along with a local task force. The community and team leaders then prepare for the short, intense workshop by arranging for publicity, student participation, work locations, and supplies. The workshop itself may subsequently consist of meetings with different representatives, site tours, open town hall meetings, personal interviews with various stakeholders, detailed work sessions in groups, a written and graphic report, and a presentation of findings. In some cases, there is a follow-up about a year later, in which the urban designer meets with the community to assess the success of the process and provide additional advice.
Community-based charette for an urban design plan for the commercial revitalization of Bagley Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. © Aseem Inam.
The effectiveness of this community participation methodology and the often-surprising results it generates have been well documented by Douglas Kelbaugh in a series of charrettes in the Seattle region.  The Urban Design Group provides a series of clear, concise, and extremely useful community participation forums, including innovative mechanisms such as street stalls and interactive displays.  The popularity of the computer program SimCity, a city building simulator, attests to the possibility of designing urban simulation models with broad public appeal. Whether one is teaching urban processes and structures, analyzing specific urban problems, or most importantly, involving the public in urban design and planning processes, SimCity displays a vast, untapped potential of urban design games and simulations. These examples point to creative, engaging, and beneficial forms of not only community participation, but more significantly, community development, because they increase community awareness, generate community strategies, and suggest modes of community intervention in the future of their own environments.
Another approach to such long-term processes of community development is illustrated by the Hismen Hin-nu Terrace housing project in Oakland, California.  With a grant from the City of Oakland, the architectural firm of Pyatok and Associates studied development scenarios for housing and neighborhood services on several sites in the city. The San Antonio Community Development Council, serving African-American, Latino, and Native-American residents, expressed interest in developing affordable housing for families and seniors on one of the sites, and joined with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, which serves the Asian-American community. Pyatok and Associates organized a series of workshops using participatory modeling kits to help over thirty neighborhood participants to design plans for the site and to understand the implications of density.
The ninety-two housing units in the project now not only house families and elderly citizens with low and very low incomes, but also help mend a deteriorating neighborhood by restoring its main boulevard with housing over shops. Family housing with a day care center around quiet courtyards is built behind a ground-floor market, niches for street vendors, and a job training center, all of which contribute to community development in the neighborhood. A multiethnic mix of tenants is depicted in exterior murals, frieze panels, decorative tiles, and steel entry gates in the form of a burst of sunshine. The art is intended to prove that America’s cultural diversity is a source of energy for creating community, rather than a source of conflict.
Urban design as a catalyst for economic development involves designing projects that generate employment on a long-term basis, attract investment into deprived areas, and increase business and tax revenues. Indeed, a city is not only a spatial concentration of a large number of people, it also contains a density of economic activities. Urban designers can be more effective if they understand and encourage beneficial economic activities through physical projects in cities.
The opening weekend of Horton Plaza, a highly successful shopping center in San Diego, in 1985 drew a crowd of 250,000 people, signaling a successful future. The opening of Horton Plaza got mostly rave reviews from such professional journals as Architectural Record, Progressive Architecture, and Architecture; it also drew some positive coverage from national media including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Sunset, California Magazine, Connoisseur, and the like. Financially, good reviews mean good promotion and good news for leasing agents.
More significantly, however, Horton Plaza generated jobs for local residents when city officials utilized their position as investors in the project to negotiate for positions. The mayor of the city turned to the Private Industry Council of San Diego County, a training and placement organization, to find jobs for low-income and unemployed San Diegans in Horton Plaza. The Council then served as the main employment office for Horton Plaza. Store openings created nearly 1,000 new jobs, and the council filled half of them. Of the people placed by the Council, 70 percent were minority workers, and 60 percent came from high-unemployment, low-income neighborhoods.
Lower Downtown, Denver’s most exciting commercial submarket in recent years, provides one model for the economic reinvestment and revitalization of other historic commercial districts.  The success of this area is based on an understanding of fundamental changes in the marketplace and public policies designed to complement market forces, and represents an incremental, project-by-project development approach that urban designers can adopt. In 1987, the Downtown Denver Partnership, a nonprofit business leadership organization, established the Lower Downtown Business Support Office to provide services such as business counseling to develop business plans, marketing strategies, and management expertise; leasing referrals to direct prospective tenants to available space; and the design and implementation of public/private, layered financing strategies for individual projects. Financial support was provided by the city of Denver, the state government’s job training office, and corporate and foundation grants.
Outdoor seating for cafes is part of the urban design strategy that contributed to the economic revival of a historic area in the Lower Downtown area of Denver, Colorado. © Aseem Inam.
A historic district ordinance contributed to Lower Downtown’s success by creating certainty in the marketplace. Small business and entrepreneurial investors were lured to the area by its scale and historic character, and the knowledge that it will remain that way. The city’s investment of $1.9 million in streetscape improvements, including new lighting, sidewalks, and street furniture, which was contingent upon the adoption of the historic district ordinance, also reinforced private investment in Lower Downtown. District stakeholders—including developers and property owners—are represented on the five-member design review committee, which is now seen as beneficial to the area because of its localized control. In four years, the Lower Downtown area, through the various strategies described above, has attracted more than $15 million in new investment, five hundred jobs, and a nearby baseball stadium.
Urban designers can learn to design environments that increase revenues by studying the strategies adopted by the often-maligned or overlooked designers of shopping centers, gambling casinos, and amusement or theme parks. All of these environments are successful to their owners and operators when they increase revenues, often in a remarkable manner. The American landscape architect Robert Gibbs is one such member of this rare breed.  According to Gibbs, a town’s retail planning should begin where a shopping center’s does, far from the selling floors. For example, it is disadvantageous to locate a shopping center in a place where commuters have to make a left turn. People tend to shop on their way to work, and they are less likely to stop if it involves making a turn against traffic.
Most significantly, shopping center designers know the average shopper (as the urban designer should know their clientele and constituencies) and understands that most shoppers stroll at about three to four feet per second, thus walking past a storefront in about eight seconds. That is how long a shop owner has to attract a consumer’s attention with an arresting window display. Downtown merchants must adapt to the same eight-second rule, but they also have to sell to passing motorists. Sophisticated retailers use a variety of subliminal clues to attract shoppers, whether it is a high-priced stationery store implying an upscale lifestyle through a window display of an old wood desk embellished with expensive writing instruments, or a small, preciously enclosed display that jewelers use to suggest high quality and prices to match. These are but a few of the examples of the manner in which shopping center, gambling casino, and theme park designers understand human behavior and create environments that encourage certain types of behavior such as consumer spending; however, urban designers can focus on other types of behavior, such as the creation of neighborhoods that foster greater social interaction and mutual understanding amongst different ethnic groups.
Urban design as a catalyst for international development takes the guise of sensitivity to indigenous and cosmopolitan contexts, the generation of cross-cultural learning, and urban mediations of economic globalization.
The conception of critical regionalism articulates a process of assimilation and reinterpretation, wherein sustaining any kind of authentic culture in the future depends upon our capacity to generate vital forms of authentic regional culture while appropriating alien influences at the level of both, the local and the global. Alvar Aalto’s work is exemplary of such processes, especially the Saynatsalo Town Hall in Finland. The collective memory evoked by the Saynatsalo Town Hall refers to two fundamental cultural traditions: the indigenous, largely agrarian one, and an alien, essentially classical one. With its steps overgrown with grass and weeds, its variations of silhouette, and its weathered materials, the Town Hall has the air of an ancient complex of buildings which had grown slowly over time. Indeed, Aalto had identified this rather unique parti of a “growing ruin” in a 1941 essay by suggesting that a “dilapidated Karielan village [in Finland] is similar in appearance to a Greek ruin, where . . . the material’s uniformity is a dominant feature . . . ” 
The Council Chamber of Saynatsalo Town Hall, Finland, which reflects the power of cross-cultural symbolism. © Aseem Inam.
In addition to evoking the memory of indigenous environments, Aalto remained faithful to the belief that a motif borrowed from a different context and transplanted with sufficient conviction onto Finnish soil became genuinely Finnish. The Italian Renaissance was for Aalto an inalienable part of his heritage and philosophy of life. In his view, providing the inhabitants of Saynatsalo with a setting in which they could live much as the inhabitants of fourteenth century Sienna did was a natural act. When the members of the municipal board of building inquired if a small community like theirs really needed to build a council chamber seventeen meters high, especially since the brick was expensive, Aalto responded that the world’s most beautiful and famous town hall in Sienna had a council chamber sixteen meters high, and consequently, he proposed to build the one at Saynatsalo seventeen meters high.
The generation of cross-cultural learning arises out of understanding and applying, in a sympathetic and appropriate manner, urban design methodologies, processes, and forms from different cultural contexts.  An instance of this would be the woeful history of large-scale low-income housing (i.e., public housing) projects built by the government in various urban contexts in the United States. The government’s quest to provide no-frills housing (e.g., built at the lowest costs on cheap, often undesirable, land), combined with the private sector’s unrelenting demands that public housing be different (e.g., minimal accommodations which are overly modest and austere) from the rest of the housing stock, undermined the notion that public housing could also be attractive housing, and possibly, even contribute to the surrounding urban contexts. 
Henri Ciriani’s social housing projects in France, which are the equivalent of public housing projects in the United States, serve as a demonstration of how large-scale low-income housing projects built by the government can constitute positive contributions to the urban environment instead of being eyesores. La Courdangle is a large social housing project (e.g., 130 apartments, 230 parking spaces, and a day care center) outside Paris in Saint Denis.  The seven-story building with its striped cladding and geometric frieze rises above the muddle of neighboring streets and forms a corner in an otherwise loosely structured urban space. By creating a visually strong plan of geometrical precision, the project inspires a still-life composition device in urban design: Transformed into a picture plane, the various free-standing buildings as well as high-rise buildings that surround the project integrate into a more harmonious urban setting. The courtyard side of the building is a pure, right-angled figure containing a perfectly defined square space. The layering of the facades facilitates the articulation of the decreasing volumes, contains the apartments’ balconies and terraces, and mediates between the architecture of the building and the urbanity of the neighborhood. In this manner, La Courdangle constitutes a low-income housing project that is rich in architectural spaces and detail, while helping define and enhance the urban space around it.
The phenomenon of increasing economic globalization is rapidly growing and has been encouraged at the urban level. For example, in American cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Minneapolis, where foreign investors have been active in buying real estate, downtown real estate interests—brokers, commercial banks, real estate consultants, and property owners—have welcomed international property investment. Throughout the 1980s the infusion of foreign capital into the buying and selling of existing buildings and the construction of new building bolstered commercial property markets by raising rents, increasing property values, and generally expanding business opportunities. The interaction of forces operating at various spatial scales—especially the urban—can be illustrated in a variety of ways: the construction of an office building for a foreign bank using materials from around the world; the dynamics of a major research university whose architecture and urban planning faculty consult locally as well as internationally; and the corporate plan location and contracting strategies of multinational corporations such as Nike and Coca Cola, as they balance local labor conditions, regional locational advantages, national markets, and international investment opportunities. 
The ongoing phenomenon of globalization suggests some strategies for urban designers. Urban designers must be able to understand and react to influences impinging on their communities, regardless of where those influences originate (e.g., World Bank funded housing projects in developing countries) and which actors are responsible (e.g., American architectural firms designing office complexes in London). Furthermore, urban designers must develop associations and networks that extend beyond their spatial reach through collaborative endeavors and thereby provide another mechanism for responding to the multitude of actors who shape their communities. For example, the Indian architect B.V. Doshi utilized an institution, the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research, to develop an internationally (i.e., World Bank) funded local (i.e., in the city Indore) housing project in India, Aranya Nagar.  The project has been largely a success due to the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation, which carried out considerable research, including surveys to understand the physical and economic factors that determine the size, type, and density of the housing plots that were specific to the local context.
Urban design that is relevant is pertinent to matters at hand and is based on fundamental human and natural conditions. I highlight three such relevant approaches to urban design: (1) a history of urban form that analyzes the determinant processes and human meanings of form, (2) a theory of urban form that is normative and based on human values, and (3) a design methodology of urban form that is empirically based and derived from patterns of human behavior.
In order to study the phenomenon of city making in a historical perspective, one must consider cities to be amalgams of the living and the built; that is, as repositories of cultural meaning. Urban form is related directly to urban process; that is, the conjunction of people, forces, and institutions that bring about urban form. A way to examine this process is to ask probing research questions: Who actually designs cities? What procedures do they go through? Which are the empowering institutions and laws? Urban process also refers to physical change through time. The tendency all too often is to see urban form as a finite thing and a complicated object. However, thousands of witting and unwitting acts every day alter a city’s lines in ways that are perceptible only over a certain stretch of time. City walls are pulled down and filled in; once rational grids are slowly obscured; a slashing diagonal boulevard is run through close-grained residential neighborhoods; railroad tracks usurp cemeteries and waterfronts; and wars, fires, and highways annihilate city cores. 
As an example, let us consider the grid. The point is made regularly that grids, especially in the United States, besides offering simplicity in land surveying, recording, and subsequent ownership transfer, also favored a fundamental democracy in property market participation. This did not mean that individual wealth could not appropriate considerable property, but rather that the basic initial geometry of land parcels bespoke a simple egalitarianism that invited easy entry into the urban land market. The reality, however, is much less admirable. The ordinary citizens gained easy access to urban land only at a preliminary phase when cheap rural land was being urbanized through rapid laying out. To the extent that the grid speeded this process and streamlined absentee purchases, it may be considered an equalizing social device. Once the land had been identified with the city, however, this advantage of the initial geometry of land parcels evaporated, and even unbuilt lots slipped out of common reach. What matters most in the long run is not the mystique of the grid geometry, then, but the luck of first ownership. 
However, for the conventional urban designer, a grid is a grid is a grid.  At best it is a visual theme upon which to play variations: he or she might be concerned with issues like using a true checkerboard design versus syncopated block rhythms, with cross-axial or other types of emphasis, with the placement of open spaces within the discipline of the grid, with the width and hierarchy of streets. To Kostof and the meaningful urban designer, on the other hand, how, and with what intentions, the Romans in Britain, the builders of medieval Wales and Gascony, the Spanish in Mexico, or the Illinois Central Railroad Company in the prairies of the Midwest employed this very same device of settlement is the principal substance of a review of orthogonal planning. In fact, the grid has accommodated a startling variety of social structures—including territorial aristocracy in Greek Sicily, the agrarian republicanism of Thomas Jefferson, the cosmic vision of Joseph Smith in Mormon settlements like Salt Lake City, Utah—and of course, capitalist speculation.
The political, legal, and economic history of a city is an often-overlooked subject in urban design. The understanding of such a history involves ownership of urban land and the land market; the exercise of eminent domain, which is the power of government to take over private property for public use; the institution of legally binding master plans; building codes and other regulations; instruments of funding urban change, like property taxes and bond issues; and the power structure of cities. Urban designers do not need to know all of this information, but they do need to realize the significance of it, to know where to turn to obtain it, and to seriously consider it in their project designs.
There have been few serious attempts at a comprehensive and normative theory of urban form. The book, A Theory of Good City Form, is an impressive and daring attempt by Kevin Lynch at a systematic effort to state general relationships between the form of a place and its value to society. Lynch generalizes performance dimensions, which are certain identifiable characteristics of cities due primarily to their spatial qualities and are measurable scales along which different groups achieve different positions. These performance dimensions are based on the following thinking:
The good city is one in which the continuity of [a] complex ecology is maintained while progressive change is permitted. The fundamental good is the continuous development of the individual or the small group and their culture: a process of becoming more complex, more richly connected, more competent, acquiring and realizing new powers—intellectual, emotional, social, and physical . . . So that settlement is good which enhances the continuity of a culture and the survival of its people, increases a sense of connection in time and space, and permits or spurs individual growth: development, within continuity, via openness and connection . . . [a settlement that is] accessible, decentralized, diverse, adaptable, and tolerant to experiment. 
In Lynch’s theory, there are seven basic dimensions. First is vitality, which is the degree to which an urban form supports the vital functions, biological requirements, capabilities, and protects the survival of human beings, for example, via adequate throughput of water, air, food, and energy. Second is sense, which is the degree to which an urban form is clearly perceived and mentally differentiated as well as structured in time and space, and the degree to which that mental structure connects with the residents’ values and concepts, for example, via a distinct identity and unconstrained legibility. Third is fit, which is the degree to which urban form matches the pattern and quantity of actions that people usually engage in, for example, via compatibility between function and form. Fourth is access, which is the ability to reach other people, activities, resources, and places, including the quantity and diversity of the elements that can be reached, for example, via ease of communication and movement. Fifth is control, which is the degree to which the creation, access, use, maintenance, and modification to urban spaces and activities is managed by those who use, work, or live in them, for example, via localized power. Sixth is efficiency, which is the cost of creating and maintaining an urban form, for example, via less energy-demanding processes. Seventh is justice, which is the way in urban form costs and benefits are distributed among people, according to principles such as intrinsic worth or equity, for example, via equal protection from environmental hazards such as traffic and pollution.
A problem-solving approach to urban design would explicitly render the design methodology and describe how a meaningful urban designer might draw directly from empirical evidence and extensive research. For example, the book, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues, is most useful as a series of thoroughly analyzed and empirically based guidelines to solving common problems of urban form. Each suggested solution is described in a way that provides the key relationships, for example, between human behavior and spatial setting, needed to solve the problem, but in a general enough manner to allow for adaptation to particular lifestyles, aesthetic tastes, and local conditions. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs repeatedly in the built environment. The longest portion of each pattern describes the empirical background of the pattern, the evidence for its validity, and the range of different ways the pattern can be manifested or designed.
According to Alexander, his coauthors, and the scientific research they cite, people need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to.  They want to be able to identify the part of the city where they live as distinct from all others. Available evidence suggests, first, that the neighborhoods which people identify with have extremely small populations; second, that they are small in area; and third, that a major road through a neighborhood destroys it.
What then, is the right population for a neighborhood? The neighborhood inhabitants should be able to look after their own interests by being able to reach agreement on basic decisions, such as about public services and common land, and to organize themselves to bring pressure on local governments. Anthropological evidence cited by Alexander et al. suggests that a human group cannot usually coordinate itself to reach such decisions if its population is above 1,500. The experience of organizing community meetings at the local level suggests that 500 may be a more realistic figure.
As far as the physical diameter is concerned, in Philadelphia, people who were asked which area they really knew usually limited themselves to a small area, seldom exceeding the two or three blocks around their house. One-quarter of the inhabitants of an area in Milwaukee considered a neighborhood to be an area no larger than a block, around 300 feet. One-half considered it to be no more than seven blocks.
The first two features of the neighborhood, small population and small area, are not enough by themselves. A neighborhood can only have a strong identity if it is protected from heavy traffic. Research cited by the authors suggests that the heavier the traffic in an area, the less people think of it as home territory. Not only do residents view the streets with heavy traffic as less personal, but they feel the same about the houses along the street: “It’s not a friendly street. . . . People are afraid to go out into the street because of the traffic. . . . Noise from the street intrudes into my home.”  This study, conducted by the University of California at Berkeley, found that with more than 200 cars per hour, the quality of the neighborhood begins to deteriorate.
Therefore, the proposed strategy suggests that to help people define the neighborhoods they live in, not more than about 300 yards or so across, with no more than 500 inhabitants or so. In existing cities, encourage local groups to organize themselves to form such neighborhoods, and keep major roads outside these neighborhoods. While one may disagree with the dimensions suggested in this pattern, one has to acknowledge that population size, physical area, and traffic flow are critical considerations for the design of contemporary neighborhoods.
In this and other patterns in the book, the authors outline an urban design methodology that is based on archetypal problems (e.g., neighborhood size), analyses of built examples, descriptions of historical precedents, and the explicit unpacking of design solutions such that they are clear, relevant, and thoughtful. The basis for the design patterns was extensive and thorough empirical research carried on over an eight-year period. Today, there is current and voluminous research, for example, on environment and behavior that is highly relevant and useful for urban designers. 
A contemporary example of a successful outdoor room which reflects the guidelines of the outdoor room pattern—Citywalk in Los Angeles, California. © Aseem Inam.
Urban designers are beginning to question what in fact is “urban” in the contemporary environment. A city is, and will continue to be, a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement (or network of settlements) of socially heterogeneous individuals, and a point (or points) of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community. A city is, and will continue to be, a catalyst; its power of attraction providing a concentration and diversity of peoples and purposes; its form celebrating the rich complexity of the human condition; its essence the true nature of human potential. 
Urban designers should focus more on the “urban” of urban design and become less infatuated with the “design” of urban design. Thus, urban design must begin with cities: How they work, how they change, and what impacts they have in creating enabling versus destructive impacts. For example, urban design has to be seen as both, within the framework of investment and development policies, and as a shaper of those policies. Examples include David Crane’s “capital web of investment decisions,” and Richard Lai’s “invisible web of laws” that guide people’s behavior.  An illustration of these “webs” is the dependence on private investments and initiatives for downtown rebuilding in American cities that has changed urban politics and the nature of the public realm. Today, private investment is generally seen as performing functions in the public interest. The public sector has become a facilitator; it responds to, reacts to, and regulates private initiatives. There is give-and-take in these public-private transactions as developers demand enhanced development rights, zoning variances, land write-down, financial guarantees, or improvements in order to initiate investment in American downtowns, while planners require in return certain urban amenities, usually public open space, street improvements, public art, housing, or even day care centers.  In this context, the form of the contemporary urban downtown is a product of negotiation, bargaining, and deal-making between city governments and private developers, and not simply the product of an urban designer’s imagination.
In the new synthesis of ideas proposed in this paper, there are three levels of success for an urban design project. These include first, the purely aesthetically informed notion of urban design as a finished product. Thus, does it look good? By the means of compressing its meanings into a concise formal expression, a poetic urban design project draws the mind to a level of perception concealed behind the conventional presentations of urban form. The second is the sense of the project as an object that functions in an affordable, convenient, and comfortable manner for its users. Thus, does it work well? By the means of a meticulous understanding of human behavior and human needs, a truly utilitarian urban design project creates an environment that satisfies its users. The third is to have the urban design project generate or substantially contribute to socioeconomic development processes. Thus, does it produce long-term impacts? In this synthesis, urban designers, and urban design projects become catalysts for long-term human development processes such as community betterment, economic improvement, and cross-cultural understanding.
A pedagogical approach to meaningful urban design would be teleological, that is, driven by the express purpose of addressing critical urban challenges such as uncomfortable and unsafe built environments, community powerlessness, economic deprivation, and fragmented interventions. Such a pedagogical approach would also include critical analysis, such as an in-depth understanding of urban design problems and promises through case studies of urban design practice and projects, and interdisciplinary learning, which includes examining cities from the perspectives of architects, landscape architects, urban planners, policy makers, social workers, and business interests. The formulation of such a pedagogical approach would be catalytic, that is, consisting of urban design strategies that include a focus on products such as public spaces and building complexes, but also the generation of long-term community, economic, and international development processes.
The primary impact on this type of learning for students will be an understanding of the urban designer as a catalyst. Through an in-depth analysis of urban issues, an interdisciplinary approach to urban problem-solving, and skills that focus not only on issues of urban aesthetics and form but also on purposeful intervention generated by long-term processes, students will gain a profound and empowering understanding of meaningful urban design. With the study of power structures of cities and the nurturing of critical thinking skills, students of urban design will gain humility (by realizing just how little power urban designers actually have) and confidence (by learning to be politically savvy in order to accomplish their goals). A secondary impact on learning for students will be a unique opportunity for them to shape the future direction of urban design through readings, research, discussions, case study analyses, and project designs that will focus on specific urban challenges, examine deficiencies in current urban design approaches and projects in addressing those challenges, and formulate alternative, more meaningful, urban design strategies. In summary, a meaningful pedagogical approach to urban design would have the following characteristics: a) selective: focus on key urban design challenges—e.g., inner city revitalization, b) depth: develop expertise in the urban design/urban development nexus, c) cutting edge: experiment with new studio formats, projects, research—e.g., international collaboration and cross-cultural learning, and d) breadth: integrate with other programs, such as political economy, social work, business, natural resources, and environmental studies.
The critical question that guides this meaningful future of urban design is: So what? That is, what consequential purpose has been achieved by particular urban design theories, urban design methodologies, urban design practices, and urban design projects? In order to develop this line of thought, we can look to the American school of philosophy known as pragmatism. Pragmatism may be best characterized as the attempt to assess the significance for human value of technology in the broadest sense; that is, technology as the totality of means employed to provide objects necessary for human sustenance.  The primary question that pragmatism raises, in common with so much of contemporary philosophy, is the question of meaning. Under what conditions does a statement have meaning, and what meaning attaches to it in the light of those conditions? Charles Saunders Pierce, the philosopher who began the pragmatic movement in 1878, developed the pragmatic maxim, a criterion of meaningfulness that has been reformulated by William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead, amongst others. What these formulations amount to is this: What conceivable bearing does a proposition, such as meaningful urban design, have on the conduct of our lives? Meanings, above all, involve purposes; and thus, a meaningful urban design should involve the most substantive purposes of generating long-term processes of human development and ensuring that outcomes of those processes are highly pertinent to fundamental human values. Such an approach to urban design requires profound cultural understanding, social sensitivity, political savvy, and an in-depth grasp of the nature of cities; but in order to be truly meaningful, it needs to be driven primarily by a moral imperative.
The design of Disneyland in Los Angeles, California—albeit “artificial” and designed to foster consumption—offers deeper lessons for understanding human behavior and creating exciting environments —for say, multicultural interaction—based on such understanding. © Aseem Inam.
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University of Michigan
is Professor and Chair in Urban Design at Cardiff University and Director of TRULAB: Laboratory for Designing Urban Transformation, a pioneering research-based practice. He is an urbanist and activist-scholar-practitioner who is designing urban transformation at the exciting intersection of urban theory and design practice. Inam has published this in-depth research in two books, Designing Urban Transformation (New York and London: Routledge, 2014) and Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities (New York and London: Routledge, 2005). His professional work focuses on developing new and more effective modes of urban practice, in which design is critical, interdisciplinary, and engaged.