Throughout my career in city planning, I have journeyed toward a fuller realization of the fundamental necessity of urban design for the good of city life. In North America, contemporary city planning began with the “City Beautiful” notions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then moved to more radical concepts such as “Radiant City” founded in early twentieth century modernism. After World War II, it became increasingly focused on research-based policy analysis, as well as scientific methods that emphasized population and economic projections. While urban design has always remained an important part of planning practice, it has received renewed attention in recent years as the revitalization of historic city centres and a return to historic neighbourhood forms (such as those promoted by new urbanism) have become greater priorities across the continent. I do not consider myself as an urban designer, but rather as a bystander with a front-row seat, and I have spent considerable time learning from and encouraging the designers.
To understand urban design, we must first define it. Urban design is not architecture, landscape architecture, or city planning; rather, it is the melding of these disciplines to create a cultural environment that provides an inviting and stimulating context for all types of human interactions. It is about relationships: how buildings relate to open spaces; how buildings and open spaces relate to other buildings and open spaces; how buildings and open spaces relate to the street; how people relate to these buildings and open spaces and streets; and how people relate to each other in this complex web. Urban design seeks to respect the patterns of what went before, and to create spaces that will be enjoyed by many people in many different ways in the future. It is about using our talents of design and appreciation of the created order to create an environment for humanity to thrive.
Urban design affects all of us directly—it determines, to a great extent, whether or not we find a place enjoyable. This sense of wanting to be in a place could come from harmony of texture and colour, the presence of trees and vegetation, or shelter from sun, wind, or rain. It could be from public seating areas that invite us to sit down to talk, or simply to watch the world go by. Urban design greatly influences our perceptions of safety and security. It affects our engagement with the city and with each other.
Urban design must necessarily consider both the revitalization of developed areas and the development of new communities. While suburbia provides living spaces that meet many needs, it is largely ineffective in creating civic identity. To combat this problem, the proponents of new urbanism seek to employ pedestrian-oriented prewar neighbourhood patterns in new developments to recreate a sense of community. However, there is a growing realization that urban centres, regardless of size, are the hubs of civic life and identity. This realization brings a growing acceptance that public investment in historic urban centres is beneficial and necessary for the civic good, even if historic economic vitality (e.g. a full range of retail uses) may never be fully restored. Civic buildings such as city halls, theatres and stadiums belong in historic downtowns. Plazas and squares provide venues for community events, or simply spaces in which to spend time in the presence of other people on a beautiful day. Churches, including those with historic buildings that are integral to a city’s built heritage, also make their contributions to community life.
Why should all this matter? After all, many places have been developed entirely on a pragmatic basis—utilitarian structures housing people and various activities in a functional way—and there is often a resistance to “embellishing” private and public spaces for fear of wasting money. Yes, good design costs money, because it requires forward-thinking owners who are assisted by competent designers, along with a higher quality of product that may—or may not—require more time and energy to maintain properly. But there is also a cost when things are not done as well as they can be. Poor design cheapens a community; it results, at least in part, in exploitation of an economic resource, and leads to blight as the building or development outlasts its original short-term purpose, or deteriorates due to poor materials or lack of maintenance. There are many examples of lost opportunities—sterile spaces that people use only if required.
Urban design is for people. The presence of people defines success, and therefore we need to carefully consider what people need. This includes homes, workplaces, social spaces, worship spaces, and recreational spaces. The quality of our lives is inextricably linked to the function and beauty of our natural and built environments, and the built environments we choose greatly influence our relationship with the natural environment. To put it simply, we are aesthetic creatures. The way our places look and feel matters greatly to us, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.