THE BLOG
07/01/2010 12:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Urban Design : Good Book, Unfortunate Field?

Urban Design is a book published last year, but it is a collection of 18 essays that Harvard Design Magazine (HDM) published in 2006-07 to mark the 50th anniversary of a fabled conference on urban design that took place at Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD) in 1956. This conference aimed to establish the field of urban design as both a subject for academic study and a realm of practice both incorporating and independent of architecture and city planning. The book includes excerpts from the proceedings of the 1956 conference, and it concludes with the transcript of a discussion on "Urban Design Now" held at Harvard in 2006 among some of the contributors to the book as well as other urban designers and critics. GSD professor Alex Krieger and William S. Saunders, editor of HDM, edited the book.

Urban Design is an excellent guide to both the history of Urban Design as a field and today's conflicts both within and without. For that I recommend it highly. What's unfortunate, however, is that the adjective that pervades the sense of the book is "despair." One cannot read these essays without reflecting on how disastrous the past 50 years have been for cities.

I'm generalizing, but: (i) in the U.S. cities emptied out and suburbanized in accordance with a logic theorized by no one outside the Federal Housing Administration or the Urban Land Institute; (ii) in other industrialized nations, traditional cities were preserved largely as monuments to themselves, maintaining upper-middle class populations, but banishing population growth to bands of dense but monolithic suburbs lacking urban amenities and charm; (iii) elsewhere in the developed or developing world, such as Eastern Europe or China, city-building meant and means the sterility of towers-in-the-park, and (iv) in the undeveloped world, where urban populations have mushroomed, the model has been the shantytown.

These disasters occurred while more concerted thinking about how to build cities by more intelligent people was taking place than ever before, meaning that the thinking was either wrong or irrelevant. For the most part, the urban designers know it, and they despair as much as anyone else. "Urban design has reached a dead end," is how Michael Sorkin begins his essay. Looking back at the optimism of 1956, Denise Scott Brown asks, "[w]ho can read the report on [the 1956 conference] without a sense of poignancy, knowing what was to follow?" The designers writing in the book continually express frustration at the obstacles to the realization of good plans by the unfortunate realities of finance and economics, politics and law, developers and community processes, racism and fear.

The essayists may have been trained to design cities, but few of them, at least in this book, express optimism that anything they can do will improve things substantially. When William Saunders, the moderator of the "Urban Design Now" discussion at the end of the book, asks his panelists to name projects where "urban design happened" in the past ten years you can practically visualize the scratching of heads. They come up with Millennium Park in Chicago, everyone's favorite new park, the interior of a reused power plant (Turbine Hall, which became the Tate Modern in London), and the serendipitous use of the underside of a Norman Foster-designed bank in Manila as a meeting place for domestic workers. That's about it. Saunders ultimately throws in the towel, admitting that the participants had not "come up with promising new models for designed urban districts." (In a running subplot, many of the essayists rail at those renegade but comparatively sunny urban designers, the New Urbanists, who, whatever their faults or merits may be (a subject outside of the scope of this review), at least have faith they can make cities better.)

It's worth noting that as poignant as the legacy of the 1956 conference may be, the future was foretold by Jane Jacobs, who was there and warned the delegates that "physical provisions" for urban processes "cannot conceivably be formalized," and by Lewis Mumford, who admonished the conference to "report on the absolute folly of creating a physical structure at the price of destroying the intimate social structure of a community's life."

Not all the contributors to the book despair, but where they find hope illuminates the problem with Urban Design as a field. The most straightforward optimist is Joan Busquets, the architect from Barcelona who has himself both participated in the revitalizing of parts of that city and the chronicling of its urban history. (Anyone who comes from Barcelona should be optimistic about cities!) In his short piece in the book, Busquets lists ten approaches to the "urbanistic project" that he considers viable. His list is eclectic, and includes, for example, projects as diverse as the contemporary additions to Lille, France, designed by Rem Koolhaas in connection with the high-speed rail station there, and the revival of traditional forms represented by the New Urbanist Seaside in Florida.

Busquets is correct that there has been much good work in cities in recent decades. That work should be celebrated, but should it be attributed to "Urban Design"? Next week in a second part of this review I will argue that the very diversity of approaches Busquets identifies is an argument that Urban Design should be disaggregated, and that there is no reason to combine architecture and planning in a unified field that, as Jacobs and Mumford seemed to have feared, would create the illusion that urban solutions can be primarily "physical."

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published last year by City Image Press.