thoughts on our urban future

Can urban design ensure quality detail?

When I am in Cambridge, I pass this fence every day.  It’s a very long and otherwise uninteresting fence that encloses the grounds of Wolfson College along Barton Way.  It is entirely uninteresting except for this one small dragon, surprisingly perched at the south-western corner of the fence, on an otherwise unremarkable spot.  It’s not a very large dragon- probably only about a foot tall (22cm) or so.

The thing is, I love this bit of whimsy thrown in to what is otherwise a dull (or worse) environment.  When considering a fence, which is- I don’t know, 300m long at least of uninterrupted and monotonous metal, in a place that no one cares about and has no discernible significance or meaning, is a lovely bit of creativity which engages with the passerby.

When I remarked upon this dragon to my colleagues, I spoke about how I saw this whimsical dragon as a symbol of the conflict between pure modernity and creative artistry.  I expressed my appreciation for the evidence of the human touch, and the multifaceted engagement of human experience.  I postulated that I prefer spaces and environments where a trace of the human effort and spirit that went into creating it was somehow visible or transposed.

Then one of my colleagues remarked that this was his problem with urban design.  How can a masterplan guarantee that level of experience?  How can urban design secure the detail intention?  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

On the one hand, there are the technical answers.  The urban designer should continue to work with the architects and stay involved in the project to oversee the physical development of the original plan.  Alternately, if that is not possible, the urban designer could develop a design code or other set of requirements that the architects or developers must follow which could require certain interventions as well as providing examples.  Some may argue that it is not the role of the urban designer to concern themselves with that level of detail, although I don’t see how you can envision a place without having at least some of those ideas in mind.  Certainly when urban designers show anything other than massing visualizations they tend to show all the children with balloons and street art and flags and such.  Envisioning the ‘life’ on the street is I think fundamental to most urban design, except perhaps that at the largest macro levels.

However.  Are these tools good enough to deliver the intended outcome?

Because I understand his question.  That when debating a masterplan and discussing the finer points, the detailed human experience and the nuance of the individual moments is really not typically at the top of the list.  Or even at the middle of the list.  It’s generally expected or assumed, and in the worst case, ignored.

I might argue that the urban designer (not unlike the architect) only has so much control.  We always have a client.  The client is ultimately responsible for the cost.  So many good intentions cost money.  The urban designer or architect can’t force a client to spend money on something they are unwilling to spend it on.  We can make all the arguments, we can present the perfect case.  But ultimately, it’s not our decision.  Even if a design guide was carefully drawn up to ensure the delivery of key details, it’s not law.  It can be changed, and depending on circumstances, it can be discarded.  It can be argued against.

And who enforces it?  The urban designer is not typically hired to oversee the delivery of the masterplan down to detailed construction.  Their intent and expectation has to be translated to others who are tasked with enforcement.  In many ways, the urban designer is very far removed from the little metal dragon, and yet, the urban designer can also hold the vision of the little metal dragon.

It’s tricky.

I’m not sure what the answer actually is.  I’m sure it’s possible with the right client, with the right job.  I’m as equally sure that it’s frustratingly impossible with the wrong client and the wrong job.  I think that we have to try to hold on to our vision.  Try to deliver it as best we can, with the tools we’re given and with the time we’re given.

Sometimes you win.

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1 Comment

  1. Developers need to have someone on their team who is sensitive to the urban design details who can influence the final product while ensuring the cost effectiveness and constantly reminding decision makers of the value of certain proposed details. Maybe the original urban designer may not be present as you say for the detailed design and construction phase, but perhaps there was someone on the developer team that could have been persuaded to become a sort of champion of seemingly insignificant yet value adding details.

    Its a constant battle to ensure that communities are not built only for function, but also to stimulate and excite our senses. Engaging places make more money. Engaging places are created thru paying attention to detail and developers need to be reminded of this. They are learning, but slowly.

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