thoughts on our urban future

On urban design education

After a four year stint dividing my time between practice and academia, I have now moved back to practice full time and stopped teaching for the time being. It has been a great experience and I have probably learned more as a tutor than I ever did as a student.

It’s interesting to analyse the ‘typical profile’ of urban design students. Although I am talking about a relatively small sample, I like to think there is a particular characteristic that they all have in common – and this is some sort of dissatisfaction with disciplines that deal mainly with the physical environment, some sort of intuitive search for something else that must be there when working with parts of the city or even parts of a building. Of course there are some that have it very clear, whilst others only get to that conclusion when encouraged to reflect on their decision and reasons for going into urban design education.

My experience has been focused on urban design teaching at postgraduate level. Whilst the majority of students came from an architectural background, we had students who were seeking to move into urban design from subjects like landscape architecture, planning, project management and graphic design. Unsurprisingly, they all had different ideas about what urban design was… and everyone was a little bit surprised. So was I when I was a student.

Often, when you tell someone you are an urban designer, either they look a little baffled or change the subject. You may then have to explain what urban designers do – or more specifically what you do, because urban design is a vast discipline and not everyone will describe it in the same way. It’s something I really like about it; you sort of get to decide what it is, in whichever way it works for you.

When it comes to teaching though, of course it’s necessary to be a little more specific. Most of my students had a design background, so the focus was not based on the basics of design itself but more on how to apply, adapt and re-invent existing skills to deploy them at an urban scale, dealing with the complexities which are inherent to the urban environments of today. Not easy to teach.

But I guess design is never easy to teach. There isn’t one single solution to each ‘problem’. There’s guidance and theories but there aren’t any formulas, no ‘one size fits all’ solutions. You have to learn to work it out on your own, and then have to communicate it credibly to be assessed. In the case of urban design, communication is key, as usually the issues being dealt with are many and are intertwined in complex ways. I find this is something students struggle with – also because there aren’t necessarily ‘standard’ notations for urban design drawings. Not that there should be!

Going back to what people are looking for when going into urban design – I think in fact they are searching for the complexity of the urban scale. I like to think urban designers tend to have some sort of sensibility for people’s needs, they can sense that there is more to creating successful places than beautiful architecture (or landscape, or good town planning, or whatever). Because, at least in my view, urban design is as much about people as it is about places.

Teaching has been incredibly rewarding, but I guess it always is, no matter what the subject (as long as you like it). In my case, it helped rediscover my passion for cities and their design, for the evidence based approach to design that is more inherent to design than it is to architecture. It has made me want to do more and to read more, and reminded me how much fun it is to always keep on learning.

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