A Beginner's Guide to Urban Design

"A Short History of America" by Robert Crumb

"A Short History of America" by Robert Crumb

Something most people don't know is that I have a casual interest in urban planning and design. I have no training or formal education in this field whatsoever but I'm fascinated by the processes and influences (both internal and external) that lead to cities as we know them today.

What is Urban Design?

The term "urban design" is loosely applied to a wide variety of topics by different people, but I would define it thusly:

The art of creating and shaping cities through a combination of architecture, landscaping, and city planning.

That's a rather simple definition though, so I'll elaborate. Whether you know it or not, most aspects of your city have been thoroughly thought-out and planned by teams of designers, engineers, architects, landscapers, and even the general public long before they ever see the light of day. From that beautiful green park in the middle of an urban metro, to the bike lane used by commuters every day, to the ever-popular suburban neighborhoods surrounding most cities, every area and detail has a reason for existing. Every public space has a story to tell.

There are a wide variety of factors that go into the planning and design of a city, too many to list here in fact. These are but a few examples:

  • Transit, i.e. methods of traveling between point A and point B, such as walking, driving, riding a bus/train/subway, and biking.
  • Architectural style.
  • Permeability of buildings near pedestrian/transit hubs, meaning buildings that are easily accessible by pedestrians, and contain stores, restaurants, or other types of services that encourage human interaction.
  • Housing density.
  • Difficulty of city navigation for both locals and visitors.
  • Public spaces where people can gather to eat, shop, and play.
  • Economics.
  • Gentrification.
  • Immigration.
  • Sprawl.
  • Availablity of nearby resources like water, lumber, etc.
  • Number of retirees who need easy access to medical care and living necessities (groceries, etc).
  • Lots more.

Why Should I Care About Any of This?

The majority of human lifetimes throughout history have been lived, loved, and ended in cities. The bulk of the world's wealth, knowledge, art, and work are produced in cities. Even if you live out in the sticks, cities affect your life in one way or another. Humans have this natural tribal tendency to gather together and share ideas, food, language, and customs. In many ways, cities are the very manifestation of human culture.

And yet, despite cities being so deeply integral to human civilization, people often don't stop to think about how their locality came to be organized the way it is. The average citizen has probably never heard terms like "urban sprawl" or "central place theory".

But I believe that people should know at least a little about this stuff. Ideally, every citizen would take part in the planning process by attending the town meetings where public opinion is called upon by those who put the plans into action. Imagine one of those town hall meetings from Parks and Recreation, but with people who actually put forth reasoned insights rather than simply complaining about how the local dog park is stinky and disruptive (well, perhaps this isn't the best example but you see what I mean).

To be clear, the kinds of decisions put forth during the planning stages of urban development can literally affect people for generations after the fact. It's important that we strive to get it right the first time, rather than having to demolish and then later rebuild in order to fix previous mistakes.

We're also talking about the fabric of social interaction in society here. Any well-designed city has various spaces that are intentionally set up to foster community and encourage chance encounters among strangers. This is part of the magic of living in a city; you never know who you might bump into while you're out and about. It may be a meeting that changes your life, and that's a powerful idea.

As architect Jan Gehl put it,

"Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it."

The thing is, the future of everyone owning cars is becoming more and more uncertain as time passes. Even if we could somehow turn fossil fuels into a never-ending resource that caused no harm to the planet, the population of our species is still quickly on the rise and at a certain point it will no longer be feasible for everyone to be driving cars everywhere they go.

I believe that cities have an urgent need to become as human-traversable as possible rather than being focused on the car, and the sooner the better. We will need to focus on increasing the walkability/bike-ability of every section of every city, and establish efficient methods of alternative transporation such as high-speed rail. We need to focus more on walking, biking and taking the train, not driving a 2-hour commute each day.

Urban design is going to play an unbelievably crucial role in our future as a global society. I cannot overstate this enough.

Okay, So I'm Interested. Now What?

I'd like to share some good resources that will help you get up to speed on how urban planning works and how it could be better. Here's some of the more entertaining (read: easily digestable) material to help you get started.

James Kunstler - How Bad Architecture Wrecked Cities (TEDTalks)

Now, I should say right off the bat that James Kunstler is a bit of a jackass, but no one can deny that he is passionate about urban planning. This TEDTalk from 2007 gives some great examples of "architecture gone wrong," and how bad things can get when city planners fail to properly define the "space" within public spaces.

Urbanized - a documentary by Gary Hustwit

Gary Hustwit has become well-known for his documentaries Helvetica and Objectified. In the third installment of this loose "trilogy" of design films, Gary turns his attention to the design of cities, and the people behind it all. Lots of great interviews, and it's beautifully shot as well. It's available on Netflix Instant, as well as many other places. Highly recommended.

If you're still interested at this point, there are some books worth checking out.

The first one I'd recommend is one of the most essential and influential books in this space, and it was written over 50 years ago! It's called The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. In it, Jacobs analyzes what makes some cities great and criticizes the cities that get it all wrong. She explains why some city neighborhoods flourish while others perish. Such a fantastic book.

Another fantastic book is called Edge City: Life on the New Frontier by Joel Garreau. This one explores the past and future growth of suburbs into urban clusters and tries to answer the big question: what on earth are we supposed to do with all these suburbs?

Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States is a great, comprehensive history of American suburbanization. If you want to know why or how suburbs have become so prominent in our society, this is the book to read.

Further Reading:

Here are a collection of articles and other resources that I think are interesting and worth checking out if you want to continue further down the rabbit hole of urban design.

The Architect Has No Clothes by Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros (article)

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Great Public Spaces by Jay Walljasper (article)

PPS: Project for Public Spaces (site full of great material)

Can Rooftop Farms Green the Skylines of China's Megacities? (article and video)

Because Green Goes With Everything by Constance Rosenblum (article)

Treehugger.com's archive of urban design content

Want more of that James Kunstler guy for some reason? His book, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, is actually pretty decent.

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Now that we've covered some of the basics, there's one last bit of homework you can do for fun. Earlier in this article, I mentioned that every city has a reason for existing. For example, New York City was an extremely valuable seaport that was easily defensible, and thanks to the opening of the Erie Canal, it became a fantastic shipping point for huge areas of the agricultural midwest.

The point is, there's a reason behind every city becoming heavily populated. Try to figure out the reasons for your city! Maybe I'll do a writeup for my own town of Oklahoma City someday (the short answer is: oil).