Is good urban design actually a shared economy?

sydney urban designLines are on trend. There’s New York’s High Line that created a linear garden above the streets of Manhattan, soon to be joined by the Lowline promising the same through Lower East Side tunnels, where sunlight is to be directed underground using fibre optics. Sydney has got in on the act with its Goods Line and South London is pondering the Coal Line over disused railway viaducts. The vogue was invented in Paris – where else? – with the creation of the Viaduc des Arts near Bastille back in 1994.

Artificial urban beaches, where stretches of waterside city are beachified – not much of an Aussie phenomenon given the proximity of the real deal – are now the big thing in Europe each summer. To name just a few: the Paris-Plages along the Seine and canals; the Strand Zuid in Amsterdam; the Beach on the Cobblestones in Cologne. Set out a few deckchairs, provide a bar and some inflatables, maybe strew some sand – instant Copacabana. Intriguingly, Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor of Paris in charge of urbanism and architecture, also has “economic development and attractiveness” in his job title. So French, so chic. There are fashions in urban design, then, as much as in hats. Pop-ups and pavilions (temporary or otherwise) are also de rigueur in the current dressing-up box for regenerating cities.

Under 20th-century modernism, city shaping was a technocratic act by architects and planners; the godlike designer looking down to create utopias, giant hands segregating cities into zones, separating homes from industry, people from cars. As we know from so many failures, this just didn’t work; people aren’t cogs to be fitted neatly into a city machine. So in the post-industrial world of the 1980s that had lost faith in utopias and modernism, the task of refitting our cities brought a new profession into being – the urban designer.

There are many definitions about what urban design constitutes. It is bigger than architecture but that doesn’t mean just lots of buildings rather than one. In some ways it is the space between buildings – although it is far more than landscaping. The fashionable term “place-making” captures some of its complexity: how do you create somewhere out of nowhere, or correct the failing bit of urbanism that has lost its historical purpose or has been unwisely developed in its recent past?

Social cohesion can be hindered by poor design – blocks arranged so neighbours don’t easily meet each other, open space no one has responsibility for, locations that reinforce isolation and introspection. But this point is too often overstretched.

Urban design is not destiny. It alone can’t create communities, can’t address racism or affect global politics through pretty place-making. While segregation reduces chance encounters with the “other” that characterises successful, cosmopolitan cities, equality and justice are better than boulevards in preventing violence.

This vital need to bring to people together as city populations change in their make-up, as well as the need to densify our cities so they grow sustainably, will characterise the next age of urban design. We will have to concentrate more on the suburbs than city centres or creating hipster havens among old warehouses. The burbs now demand the same regenerative attention and innovation that the urbs of the world have seen over past decades.

“To be a good architect you have to love people,” Jan Gehl says. The same is true of visionary place-making: look beyond the lifestyle and there are important questions of life to address. And of belonging. Integration, not segregation, should be urban design’s watchword. To read more click here.

The 9th International Urban Design Conference; Smart Cities for 21st Century Australia – How urban design innovation can change our cities  will be held at Hyatt Canberra from 7th-8th November 2016 with optional tours available on Wednesday 9th November.

Registrations are now open. CLICK HERE to register for the Conference.

This years’ theme, will focus on an understanding of what makes a city ‘smart’ from a urban design perspective and how the built environment develops during the city planning process.

Authors or organisations interested in presenting at the 9th International Urban Design Conference are invited to submit an abstract. To submit an abstract CLICK HERE.

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