Monday, October 17, 2011

A "Master of Detail" Did This. Does Urban Design really matter anymore?

A "Master of Detail" did this. L'Enfant's parcel plan for DC (image from wikimedia commons).

Last year, Frank Gruber published a series of provocative posts on his Huffington Post blog pointing out that "urban design" had actual little to contribute to the cohesion of today’s cities. The perceived missing bridge between architectural practice and urban planning, he argues, would not lead to the healing of sprawl if it existed because the factors that shape urban form are "non-design” factors.  Conveniently, Gruber lets the lamenting believers of urban-design-as-a-field make it for him by referencing Richard Sommer’s essay in Alex Krieger and William S. Saunders' book Urban Design.  Blaming utopian urban design for anything, claimed Sommer, is "an almost total misreading of the material history of urbanization in the United States, in which suburbanization, industrial disinvestment, racial segregation, and the popularity of the automobile played infinitely more decisive roles in the dissolution of centralized cities than Corbusian aesthetics." Precisely, says Gruber. (BTW, note the recent corrective to the Charles Jencksian mythology of modernism's failures in the pages of The Economist.)

Point taken, Frank.  So is there any reason to persist in the belief that urban design as an endeavor can produce antidotes to sprawl?  What is so different now to allow this possibility?

That one is a good head-scratcher. Besides making me question the purpose of my professional life, and perhaps sending me into the early maw of a mid-life crisis, I gotta admit, every time I read a Gruber post, I can’t help feel a bit like a poseur when I’m done.  What kind of elitist am I to think *my* design conceits have a defining role to play in making the conditions for public life in the city better?  You could, of course, question the same role for architects and planners in general, but the peculiar ones of us that appropriate the title “urban designer” are somehow a more star-crossed lot. (Dang it! I knew I should have opted to first grind it through IDP.)

But I have to concur with Gruber.  Urban design, as the physical result of urban planning, cannot really redress conditions that require more interventions than what primarily falls in the rubric of urban planning.  Urban design is toothless without a proactive developer or an effective planning authority behind it. Good urban design is the result of good planning. Period.

Nonetheless, I would point out that what we call the work of the “urban designer” is not really engaged where it is often most needed.  The cases in which city leadership spearheads pro-urban visions and policies are, not surprisingly, the best opportunities for urban designers to shape urban form.  But only sporadically are the urban planner types ever engaged at the urban form-making level (the level of urban designing) to deal with sprawl growth at the first stage. This role is far more likely to be placed in the hands of metropolitan transportation authorities and managers of various municipal departments tasked to expand the regional road network to serve corridor growth and to implant the local utility and public sector services that support it.  The urban designer - or committee of urban design (representing the various characters and citizen participants who most often undertake the work of “urban design”) - is at a great disadvantage here for many reasons that Gruber has ironically begun to mention with his recent post reviewing Earl Swift's The Big Roads. To a certain extent, subdivision developers play the only “design” role here, but this role is rarely a proactive one so much as a speculative one engaging preexisting and latent opportunities, both legal and financial.  Unfortunately, under these conditions, the developers' incentives are all stacked in favor of autonomous subdivision design, the enemy of good-boned urbanism.

I would claim that the best service urban planners can do for urbanism is to compete with technocrats and city leaders in controlling the climate of urban form outcomes in the new urban growth areas, via zoning, influence in policy and in area planning. In these arenas, urban planners typically go mano a mano with these two rivals anyway.  Good naturedly, of course.  Sometimes proactively, yet most often reactively, friendly cajoling or poky nudging is enough to win over politicians and technocrats to consider new formats for growth, but, typically, the backing of citizen activism or a powerful mayor or constituency on your side is often needed. 

As single contributors, architects can and often do serve urbanism by creating civic-conscious designs for individual built projects while pleasing their clients at the same time (a tall order many times).  And because architects are gifted copycats while also being quite jealous of one another, they will often engage in attempts to “out-perform” each other in the public eye (this is largely what motivates architects' patience with LEED design).  This usually can only happen in settings already sufficiently urbanized to be able to afford such design services from architects.  But, where it can happen, architects sometimes establish precedents the public loves that pave the way to more easily entitle projects following in kind.  Thus, collectively, they end up doing iterative, piecemeal urbanism that sometimes achieves noteworthy urban design.  Only rarely, if they are gifted, reputable and lucky, are they handed large enough projects to author an urban design project of an extraordinarily cohesive nature (see DPZ's Habersham, SC).

Sometimes, an amalgamation of both design opportunities takes place in a city district, where architects build on the synergy of multiple-sized efforts, usually where ample underutilized parcels and former industrial retrofits can be had in ample supply in proximity to downtowns (the Pearl District, Denver’s LoDo).  These places, notably, are easy to retrofit to an urban pattern because the city grid either pre-exists or is easy to connect to and to expand. While the consultation of urban designers can be employed here, note that it is not really needed.  Much of that effort is not an act of authorship, but an open, on-going, discursive act of negotiation (and, yes, a political act) that most likely circumscribes – and appropriately so! – the work actually to be designed by people that stamp drawings.  “Urban design” here is a matter of straightforward problem solving to exploit available funding mechanisms.  Some sizeable single-firm contributions, like eddies in the flow, may occur here and there wherever developers control chunks of land single-handedly. The rest of what is important beyond transportation system integration, though some like to call this “urban design”, is just, let’s face it, landscape design (and some large-scale infrastructure design) taking advantage of obvious features to exploit (e.g. the S. Platte River and 16th Street promenades in LoDo).

Thus, Gruber is on to something. Urban designers like to think their work is a distinct contribution in cities, but, in reality, they are just architects and landscape architects doing their basic stuff.  The important urban design is already done for you: the no-brainer, pro-urban extension of the city grid.

Is there a place where urban design can begin to break out into its own field as a distinct sub-specialty of “design” inquiry and practice? I actually believe it begins in transportation network design (including transit network design) and the associated design work integrating multiple modes into street design.  That is because the greatest piece usually involved in the control of urban form is the initial shaping of the transportation network, and this is one that today’s transportation engineer dominates from the beginning, via expert technical counsel and forecasting, to the stamped construction drawing. The urban designer needs to push back gently on his engineering colleagues via the developmental constraints they enact. I’m not saying that the Urban Designer is tasked to rival transportation planners here, but just to become intimate with their work, and to understand the physical and performance dimensions of it, both at the facility level and the network level. 

Note that I said "begins".  This transportation arena is not the critical piece for the urban designer to control. The most important piece of the pie in the act of city-shaping is the act of parcelization.  The act of subdivision. The parcel, as a legal and financial instrument, is actually the most persistent entity driving city form in our modern societies.  To put a new spin on the "figure-ground" focus of urban design, I claim that a professional role for an "urban designer" is to specialize in the act of parcelization via a more careful synthetic design of the street, parcel and public realm.  This is a largely unplumbed area of design inquiry that has of late (because of obsessions with building form) been subordinated, underestimated or flat-out ignored in contemporary city planning.  But it is an area of design inquiry that needs to be constantly queried, debated, experiment with and expanded generation to generation.  This is exactly where a case for Design, with a capital "D", can be had for Urban Design.

Once, the surveyor's act of parcelization was an art form that L'Enfant's ilk regarded as noble as the Vitruvian act of architecture itself. I suspect Gruber might ascribe this role also to urban planning, but, if so, actually architects are most likely to perform this role day to day ...and perhaps should, since they are the most acquainted with the dimensional needs of buildings (hmmmm..., is this an actual missing bridge between architecture and urban realm planning?).

Urban designers are perfectly cut out for this role because we are the people who always have to think with the street section - that is, the building envelope, ground plane and the transportation typical. As a team partner standing between building and road designers, the urban designer is always being clued in to the primary challenges facing both horizontal and vertical development in her city.  Her planning background also allows her to guage and measure the physical requirements of transportation, ecology, and humans, and such experience gives her clear conceptions about the give and take between them.  All these things need to be thought about to apply the art of parcelization well.

But to create such a role of Urban Design specialization, we have to rehabilitate the name "urban designer" a bit.  For one, the meaning of the term has been eroded from the original open design praxis Kevin Lynch imagined for it, simply because of its close association with dogmatic or binary-minded schools of thought (CIAM modernism, New Urbanism). But, primarily, I think we have a really big problem with just the term “designer”.  There is a general Mid-American distrust of the word “designer” that I think sidetracks others from the value of the service.  Design disciplines, especially urbane ones, are distrusted, period – partly the fallout of the media-turning theatrics of pop-artists such as Andy Warhol. The aloof artist-designer figure, in popular imagination, defines our material culture by observing autonomous design movements in the undercurrents and margins of culture and ingeniously teasing them out to their ultimate forms.  The artist-designer is too caught up in these autonomous discourses to apply *real* material value, beyond a (short-lived) fetish dividend, to the object being designed.  Notice that civil and transportation engineers, who actually have the upper hand in effectually shaping urban form (at least its sprawl based alternative) can evade this popular distrust due to the easy confidence we place on “value-neutral” engineered solutions – a predilection going back to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. (It is Popular Mechanics, not Popular Design, for a good reason.)  Actually, such prejudicial attitudes favoring design by engineered solutions represent a continuation of modernism. Engineers, like prewar modernists, don’t claim their obvious pursuit of autonomous discourses.  Supposedly, they only measure, re-synthesize and codify what careful observation has “deemed” efficient, safe, cost-effective and functional for society.  This is how they then end up designing – yes designing! – the most unsustainable and inhospitable urban environments imaginable.

Maybe I should call myself an Urban Realm Mechanic…or, better yet, a “Surveyor”, like the architects and city planners of yore, who, like L’Enfant, actually were entrusted with the role of city form making because they knew about the all-important act of parcelization, which they executed with uncanny brilliance.  L'Enfant's more magnanimous title “Major of the Corps of Engineering, Master of Detail” is also instructive. (Privately, I have called myself a "master tile-layer", but this personal handle, admittedly, will not allow others to see the full roles I have entailed here, why…”Master of Detail” seems far more evocative!)


Daniel said...

There's always the power of inspiration that urban designers can exert. Parcelization does make it difficult to actually build anything at a large scale as designed, but an appealing visualization of a possible future for a place could catalyze public interest. I could see a couple of positive opportunities from this. Individual property owners could be encouraged to voluntarily plug their own site designs into the larger whole, if they could see how they would benefit from it. Maybe a BID could formalize such an agreement. Secondly, the design could be used to generate enthusiasm for something like a form-based code that would, at least, outline some of the concepts if not all of the details of the design.

This is much more modest than anything Haussmann or L-Enfant could do with either unbridled state power or a blank slate, but it could be a valuable contribution nonetheless.

I like how you've emphasized subdivision as a role of an urban designer. On the flip side, there are also occasions when consolidation of fragmented parcels is an important challenge. In these cases (we'll assume eminent domain is off the table) facilitating collaboration between many different interests and personalities becomes the major skill.

Eric Orozco said...

Daniel, yes, I agree visualization is part of the design service urban designers provide, although it is not an arena that necessarily entails urban designers. But certainly it is nice to have around some planners who can draw/imagine proposed catalyzing projects.

What you mention about the challenge facing parcel consolidation in some cases is in fact a reason to apply urban design thinking in the act of subdivision. It requires thinking in the fourth dimension, thinking about the generational implications of subdivisions. That is thinking beyond laying them out for short term profit. This is why it is important to engage urban designers in the periphery, where subdivision developers do indeed have a blank slate. Here is where planning policy can be very effective. Give the developer a reason to hire an urban designer! ')

Daniel said...

I see what you're saying about good subdivision. We have a small town in our region that was platted from scratch in the 20's as a mining community. The original design had lots way too narrow and small, even for the era (I think less than 20 ft. wide), and they subdivided a much larger area than ever materialized.

Now, decades later, these properties have changed hands several times and it becomes difficult to cobble together enough lots to use for redevelopment. Developers choose to build outside of town where they can buy a single parcel from one farmer.

On the other hand, I see how creating appropriately-sized small lots can become a strategy for encouraging diversity of uses and ownership, adding richness to the neighborhood.

Eric Orozco said...

Daniel, what town is this? Sounds intriguing.

The problem with a lot that size is accommodating the vehicle. So, they are impossible to build today.

How wide are the streets?

In South Philly, the typical rowhouse is 15' on residential streets, 17' feet or so on busier streets. Even in Philly, you can't lay out developments this way. Developers demand too much for vehicular needs.

Old historic development patterns make us urban designers very envious. Unfortunately, when we have off-street parking requirements, we have no choice but to come up with parcelization schemes for today's clients. This is partly why the art of parcelization needs to be rethought generation to generation to promote urbanism relevant for the age. We won't be abandoning parking soon... Even in places like South Philly.

Daniel said...

The town is Mineral, Virginia (of recent earthquake fame). I agree that the lot size would be nicely suited for rowhomes without off-street parking. The funny thing is that, even from the very beginning, only detached single-family homes were actually built. I think even the early ones were built straddling two lots.

Your observation makes me wonder whether the original plan envisioned rowhomes but the company never followed through with implementation. There isn't too much of a precedent for attached units in small town Virginia, but in general there aren't too many company towns either. Maybe they imported a plan from Pennsylvania and changed their mind part way through.

Frank Gruber said...

Hello, Eric, this is Frank Gruber. Yes, I have Googled myself, how embarrassing, and found this post. I can't tell you how pleased I am to have found such a thoughtful response to those articles I wrote. Thanks.

Eric Orozco said...

Frank, what an honor!
Thank you for your Huff Post installments. I'm glad urbanism has such a keen reader and observer. By the way, while I call myself an urbanist, really I'm a proud Cityist.