Jonathan Barnett, Author of "City Design" Discusses His New Book

Jonathan Barnett, author of City Design, discusses the process of writing the new edition of this comprehensive textbook.

My book, City Design: Modernist, Traditional, Green, and Systems Perspectives, grew out of a course on the history and theory of city design that I was asked to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. All the students were familiar with modernist city design from other courses and from seeing it almost everywhere. The planning students also knew about the New Urbanism and the revival of traditional city design because of the importance of walking and bicycle transportation as an alternative to cars. The landscape architecture students were hearing about landscape urbanism as the dominant way to design cities in their other courses, and the architecture students were part of a program that put strong emphasis on building systems and computer “scripts” to generate architectural form. I could not find a textbook that covered all of these aspects of city design. I assigned various readings, and did my best to bridge the gaps in class, but I still felt I needed an even-handed, illustrated text that covered all these approaches, as partisans of each design concept tend to down-grade the others. I think it is good for students to decide that they prefer a particular way of designing cities, but I believe that their introduction to each alternative shouldn’t take sides. So I decided to write the textbook I needed.

In the first edition of City Design I began with modernist city design because it is the world-wide default position, especially familiar to students from places like Singapore, Korea, and China, where the big cities have been almost completely reshaped by modernism. I explained how these ideas began as revolutionary concepts held by a tiny minority of architects almost a hundred years ago and then showed the stages by which these ideas reached their current dominance. I then turned to traditional city design, the concepts that the modernists sought to overthrow, beginning with the formulation of these design ideas in Europe during the Renaissance, and showing familiar parts of current cities shaped by traditional design, before discussing the New Urbanism and the revival of traditional ways of organizing cities to make them more livable. I put Landscape Urbanism into context as a recent descendent of a tradition of reshaping the natural landscape that goes back almost 2,000 years in China and was imported into the west first as garden design and then as a strong influence on the suburban expansion of cities. The influence of building systems on cities can be traced back to pre-industrial times, but becomes even more powerful during the industrial revolution, while computer generated city designs are an exciting extension of systems design into a new and not yet completely formulated influence on cities. I used a lot of illustrations because it is important to be able to see how various theories work out in practice. I and the publishers did our best to make sure that the illustrations were as close as possible to their references in the text.

When it became time for a new edition of City Design, Routledge wrote to some of the professors who have adopted the book for their courses asking for their suggested improvements. A strong theme that emerged is that these teachers wanted to see an even stronger emphasis on major current problems: world-wide population growth and rapid urbanization, arguments about the preservation of existing historic areas, climate change, and the challenge of informal settlements. These suggestions have led me to make stronger connections between these issues and the most relevant design approaches to help resolve them. I have added newer modernist city designs that have overcome the doctrinal rigidity of earlier days and are producing more livable places. I show the outcome of the intervention by Prince Charles to the redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks in a historic part of London and added more recent traditional city designs that seek to be compatible with well-loved historic areas. Climate change means that the landscape is no longer just a setting for development but a dynamic force that must be integrated into designs for cities, and I now start the Green chapter with the plan for rebuilding New Orleans so it can continue to survive in its vulnerable location and discuss other ways in which city design can help urban areas adapt to climate change. Informal settlements – places that are almost devoid of urban systems – help explain which systems are indispensable for city design and development, and I now use them to introduce the subject of systems city design.

Another comment from my professional colleagues: while everyone liked the way that illustrations accompanied the text, they felt that some of the pictures were too small. Routledge has provided a larger page size, a complete redesign, and an improved production, so that it is much easier to see the detail in the illustrations.

I hope that the new edition of City Design continues to be helpful to students, design professionals, and all those others who are interested in improving cities.

  • City Design

    Modernist, Traditional, Green and Systems Perspectives, 2nd Edition

    By Jonathan Barnett

    City Design describes the history and current practice of the four most widely accepted approaches to city design: the Modernist city of towers and highways that, beginning in the 1920s, has come to dominate urban development worldwide but is criticized as mechanical and soul-less; the Traditional…

    Paperback – 2016-02-23
    Routledge