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Exploring the Evolving Dimensions of Urban Design

Posted on: April 20, 2021

Written by Matthew Carmona, author of Public Places Urban Spaces, 3rd Edition

This blog introduces the third edition of Public Places Urban Spaces, The dimensions of urban design, a book that marks the continuing evolution of the discipline of urban design (as well as of my academic career).  In doing so I will highlight some of the changes that we have seen in urban design over the last decade, as reflected in the new book just published by Routledge.  Alternatively you can view a presentation of this blog on YouTube.

The exponential growth of knowledge in urban design

The primary motivation for the book derived from a period between 1995 and 1998 when I worked at the University of Nottingham and was asked to teach a new urban design theory module.  Looking around there were no books that offered, in one place, a clear and logical route-map through the growing knowledge about urban design, its theories and practices.  Consequently – and perhaps rashly – I resolved to write one.

Over the course of my first year at Nottingham the lectures that I produced and taught (with some very dodgy slides!) provided the structure and early content for the book, all heavily influenced by the literature I was reviewing at the time for my doctorate.  Being distracted somewhat by the PhD, it took until 2003 for the first edition to be finished and published, following invaluable contributions from Steve Tiesdell, Tim Heath, and Taner Oc – all of whom were also at Nottingham.  By that time I had moved to UCL.

All three editions have at their core a determination to provide a comprehensive overview of the subject encompassing all important areas of urban design scholarship, although I have to confess that this has become progressively harder to achieve over the years.  The first edition of Public Places Urban Spaces was limited by the knowledge at our disposal in a world still on the verge of an information revolution.  It was at Nottingham that I had my first computer that could properly surf the web, but online information relating to urban design was sparse, dedicated ‘academic’ journals on the subject were in their infancy, and the choice of books was limited, as was my own experience of large parts of the world.

Evolution of public places urban spaces book cover

Evolution of a book

By 2010 (when the second edition was published), things had of course changed and Steve Tiesdell and I worked closely together on updating the book in the context of what by then was a burgeoning subject as regards journals, programmes of study, online resources, and general interest in the discipline.  Reflecting this, we began working on the second edition just five years after the publication of the first, but looking back on the edition, whilst I was regularly travelling beyond the west by then, the book overwhelmingly remains embedded in a western perspective on urban design.

The third edition had to wait almost a decade before I began work on it.  In part that reflected Steve’s tragically early death, just a year after the publication of the second edition, and my uncertainly whether I wished to continue the journey without my old friend and colleague.  It also reflected the enormity of the task, which only got bigger as the years passed.  Research shows that the size of the global datasphere grew from 9.5 trillion gigabytes transferred between servers worldwide in 2008 to an estimated 163 trillion by 2025.  If urban design information reflects this exponential growth (which unscientifically I can confirm that it does!) then any synthetic overview of the discipline becomes progressively more challenging.

In 2017, faced with the mountain of published books, articles, online resources and other materials piled up for inclusion in the new edition, it almost made me turn tail and run.  Fortunately, I didn’t, and over three years I gradually ploughed through the material in order to create edition three.  Something of this growth in urban design knowledge can be seen in the physical growth of the book, from 312 pages in 2003, to 394 in 2010 and now 672.

There is quite simply a more complex, layered and far more international literature from which to draw, also reflected in the evolution from 600 source references and 200 images in the first edition, growing to 1,000 and 300 in the second, and 1,500 references and almost 1,000 images in the third; the images a deliberate attempt to capture the diversity of international contexts and experiences that mould approaches to urban design.

One side-effect of this is that whilst the discipline remains firmly embedded in the formative and Western contributions of its founding mothers and fathers – the likes of Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen, and Christopher Alexander  – their significance is also reducing in an ever more sophisticated and nuanced set of understandings and analyses from around the world derived from a combination of theoretical exploration, empirical evidence and knowledge derived from reflective practice.

Structuring urban design knowledge

Whilst wishing to see the book continue, I also needed to acknowledge that the third edition was not – could not be – simply business as usual.  With the passing of Steve a chapter had closed and I felt that the new edition had to be something different.  At this point, then, particular thanks is certainly due to Taner Oc, Tim Heath, and particularly and posthumously to Steve Tiesdell, for their contributions to the journey thus far!

The structure of the book which had its origins in my PhD has proved to be pretty robust, indeed I have delivered a lecture course every year since 1995 based on the notion of six substantive ‘dimensions’ of urban design thought – morphological, perceptual, social, visual, functional, and temporal – all embedded within four overarching ‘contexts’ – local, global, market and regulatory – that form the background against which urban design is practiced.  As urban design is (or should be) a joined-up activity and our experience of it is certainly an integrated one, this separation into dimensions and contexts could be seen as problematic.  At the same time, to better understand the whole and for the purpose of clarity in its exposition, it is first necessary to analyse the constituent parts.

Diagram of the design process of  public places urban spaces

The original book structure

Whilst practices and theories have undoubtedly evolved alongside the explosion in published materials, this structure has been able to accommodate the changes and still remains at the core of the new book, albeit with new dimensions added and the contexts rationalised, as we will see.  Feedback from users of the previous editions suggested, however, that what they valued above all were the dimensions chapters that helped them to make sense of the complex overlapping and sometimes confusing urban design literature.  The new structure has therefore been re-focussed around these.

Diagram of new book structure public places urban spaces
New book structure

Ultimately, of course, urban design can only be truly integrative if all areas of action are considered together, and this occurs – in theory at least – through the process of urban design.  The first and second editions conceptualised a process of designing and separate delivery processes of: development (private sector action), control (public sector action) and communication (of those actions).  The new structure fully integrates the idea of urban design as a larger and ongoing place-shaping continuum in which all of the dimensions, including delivery processes, are fully immersed.  These are now re-conceptualised in two new process dimensions – design governance and place production – and the notion of urban design as a process runs like a golden thread throughout the book.

Whilst these might crudely by seen as, respectively, the public sector’s role in shaping the decision-making environment for urban design and the development processes through which private and public interventions in the built environment are made, it was important to broaden out and internationalise the previous discussions.  They incorporate the notion that both these new process dimensions encompass numerous actors, tools of engagement and interacting and continuous processes, not least the vital activity of understanding community aspirations and engaging communities in decision-making.

Feeding into and informing these eight (not six) dimensions are now three (not four) overarching and shifting contexts in which urban design action is situated: the local, global, and power contexts, each composing of two critical facets:

  • Local context, encompasses not only the distinctive qualities of local places in which urban design actions are situated, but also the cultural complexities and differences that shape the different responses to those contexts. This cultural diversity is given a much greater prominence in the 3rdedition, as it should be in a world where ideas and people move much more freely and where cultural specificities can too easily be ignored or undermined.
  • Global context, concerns not only the imperative to respond rapidly to the twin climate and ecological emergencies – but also to the all-pervasive impact of technology on both the experience of urbanity as well as on the day to day practices of urban design (e.g. the rise and use of big data). Both are externally imposed realities that are global in their origins but profoundly local in their impacts.
  • Power context, brings together market and state power relations. Previously these were conceptualised as separate contexts, although in reality the tensions and synergies between them is what defines this context in terms of how decision-making power is wielded and negotiated, and what its day to day impact is on the shaping of places.

Birds eye view of Johannesburg

The power context written into city fabric – Johannesburg

New knowledge in urban design

Within this structure, what is new and what has remained the same in the decade or so since the last edition was published?

The fundamentals of the discipline – what urban design aims to achieve and the diverse ways it goes about it – have not changed, albeit they continue to evolve within the changing local, global and power contexts already described.  The new edition defines urban design as:

“the process of shaping better places for people than would otherwise be produced”.

In doing so it recognises that with or without urban design, places will continue to be created, but urban design reflects a belief in the human potential to deliver better outcomes, if we so choose, by bringing to bear the collective wisdom held within the discipline.

This definition differs in a subtle but critical respect from that which underpinned the previous editions of this book, namely the substitution of the word ‘making’ for shaping’.  Urban design is not about making new places from scratch – as we would a consumer good – but is instead always about shaping places that already exist. These places may or may not already have been developed, but will always be on, over or under an existing landscape, which – more often than not – will be part of an existing urban fabric.  In this regard we shape and reshape places over time.

The neo-liberal hegemony of market / state relations within which urban design, typically, operates has also remained largely the same, interrupted and influenced (if not fundamentally changed) in the early years of the decade by the financial crisis and associated austerity, and latterly by the health and economic crises associated with covid, the full impact of which remains unknown.

Whilst there have been repeated attempts to redefine the subject, for example by relating it to particular favoured theories; a few attempts to hijack it by re-situating it within the disciplinary boundaries of allied subjects; and repeated attempts to package and market it under the guise of the latest ‘urbanism’, the major leap forward during this period can best be described in terms of a profound deepening of the knowledge-base for the discipline.

Taking each of the dimensions in the order in which they now appear in the book, it is possible to identify a range of subject matter that, whilst not new, has been significantly developed in the last decade (and in the new edition):

Temporal: Starting with the temporal dimension – or how time impacts on the experience and shaping of place – I would identify three key themes that have gained increased prominence:

  • First, expanding and shrinking cities – whilst urban design literature is still dominated by discussions of managing growth, a lesser known but important body of knowledge and practice is dealing with the management of decline.
  • Second, gentrification and design – gentrification almost always raises its head when discussing urban design, but the relationship is often poorly understood.
  • And third, resilience and temporality – the imperative to address climate change and its effects through the design of more resilient urban forms contrasts with the significant theorisation and development of practices around the temporary city.

Gentrification in action in Santiago
Gentrification in action – Santiago

In each of these areas – like others I have yet to mention – my goal is always to present the arguments and evidence in a manner in which tensions and possible resolutions become apparent.

Perceptual: Moving to the perceptual dimension – encompassing the manner in which we perceive and relate to place – here I will emphasise two themes:

  • The question of what is authentic vs. inauthentic has been tested by the massive spread in the fast developing regions of the world of what have been termed ‘simulcrascapes’ of a different order and scale to those experienced in the West, and in turn symbolising the shifting production and consumption patterns of the globalised economy.
  • Also, in a more global age with cities competing against each other, certain buildings are increasingly designed to be immediately iconic. International architectural competitions are now routinely expected to generate iconic buildings, and sometimes we forget that it is places not just buildings that make cities.

Morphological: Discussion of the morphological dimension – relating to the physical structure of urban areas and spaces – has been particularly strengthened in two areas:

  1. Informal urbanism has been a long-standing concern in the urban design literature from Christopher Alexander onwards, but these discussions have been significantly developed in recent years by a better understanding of the processes of urbanisation in the Global south.
  2. Street design also continues to evolve with movements such as Complete Streets in the USA and arterials to boulevards in Australia demonstrating the value of well designed streets that incorporate active travel opportunities and active edges.  This is an old area of knowledge gaining new prominence through the need to retrofit many unsustainable cities.

Informal urbanism as slums in Delhi

Informal urbanism as slums – Delhi

Visual: Turning to the visual dimension – concerned with the visual / aesthetic experience of place – again we can start with street design:

  • From high level walkways to waterfront promenades, typologies of streets are as diverse as public spaces but have not always received the same academic attention, at least until recently.
  • I would also pick out the ongoing debate on beauty and its importance. This is an ever-present part of the urban design cannon, but debates have been reignited in recent years in the context of new evidence about the day to day impacts of beauty upon us, and the inequitable access to beauty within society.

Social: On the social dimension – encompassing all our complex social relationships with places – I would identify three new themes:

  • First, public space narratives – research around the use of and right to public space represent some of the most active fields for urban scholarship in which narratives of exclusion have long dominated, but are now being partly balanced by new and more positive attempts to re-theorise public space.
  • Second, and not so positive is the spread of urban terror attacks and resulting military urbanism as the first design response from urban authorities.
  • Finally, the pursuit of social justice has underpinned global debates around the role of urban design and urban management in overcoming exclusion born of cultural / ethnic diversity, sexual difference, gender identity, disability, and socio-economic status. Here the limits as well as the opportunities provided by urban design need to be fully understood.

Social space in Chicago people gathered together

Social space, Chicago

Functional: Regarding the functional dimension – or how places and their constituent parts function day to day – again I would select three not new but strengthened themes born of recent trends:

  • Perhaps more than any other, research on the linkages between health, well-being and urban design has burgeoned over the last decade, requiring a significant focus in any disciplinary overview. In 2020, and still today, the Covid-19 pandemic added a significant new focus to this concern.
  • Second, building more explicitly urban areas at greater densities, and how to manage this, has been a major concern across the world, including the complications and contradictions of building high, and now notwithstanding the obvious tensions in a world dominated by its response to the current pandemic.
  • Third, green and blue infrastructure, namely the need for the better integration of nature and green space into urban areas and the provision of quality and ecological richness alongside the quantity of such infrastructure delivered.

Design governance: Turning now to the first of the new process dimensions, Design governance, here I should highlight two critical themes:

  • First, what we might call the culture of design. This reflects the latest European research that demonstrates that the most sophisticated public sector responses to achieving urban quality seek to embed the delivery of urban design in a local culture that routinely prioritises place quality.
  • They do this through, second, prioritising the use of the right combination of formal and informal tools of urban design governance. In this area theories and practices of design governance have developed significantly, including work classifying and understanding the full range of the formal and informal tools available to public authorities, and others, in order to better influence place production.

Building local place value people looking at planning proposals

Building local place value (images Kevin Murray Associates)

Place production: The final dimension concerns place production.  Here I would highlight:

  • First, the real estate finance / design intersection – from residual valuation, to value engineering, to land value capture and public private partnerships, design both alters the financial equation for development and is fundamentally affected by it. But this relationship is not well understood or exploited by urban designers.
  • It relates, second, to the idea of place value. In particular, the exponential growth in scientific studies linking aspects of design quality with aspects of value – economic, social, environmental and heath – has lead to the concept of place value which has become a further underpinning concept throughout the book, including in this, the final chapter.

Shaping better places

Reflecting this growth in knowledge has also meant that the new edition is far more reflective of a greater array of urban design thinking and experiences from around the world, including from fast developing and emerging nations and from the Global south.  Internationally, urban design is a rapidly growing discipline and there is an ever-increasing demand for urban design practitioners – or at least for those with urban design expertise and place-shaping sensibilities – from both the public and private sectors.  Whilst, in Western countries, this demand is variable, it is also long established.  In recent years we have seen this same sensibility dramatically spread and grow in other parts of the world, with new teaching programmes, journals and research and practice capabilities maturing quickly.

The opportunity of writing a new edition has also been an opportunity to better reflect my own thinking in the book (some of which I have already referenced above).  The common thread uniting my work has been the idea of urban design as a process, and that this process is at the heart of the discipline rather than necessarily an agreed set of normative design principles.

No single set of rules (or objectives) can capture the scope and complexity of urban design, nor offer a step-by-step formula for successful place-shaping.  It is an exploratory, intuitive and deductive place-shaping process involving engagement in complex multi-faceted urban problems embedded in the variable and specific conditions of time and place.  The complex interactions between the variety of processes and elements in a place can, however, be examined and these can give generic clues as to why some places succeed while others fail.  It recalls the key question posed by Jane Jacobs (1961) who famously first sought to understand “The kind of problem a city is”.

This book frames the increasingly extensive conceptual and inter-disciplinary underpinning of the discipline in the hope that those who read it will bring a more informed, even enlightened, perspective to bear on the production of urban space.  As all the editions have advocated, shaping better places for people than would otherwise be produced!