What is Urban Design?

Contention to Consensus

Evan Shieh (MAUD '19)


At the beginning of our curriculum here in urban design at the GSD, we were asked as a collective group to voice our personal understandings of what constitutes its framework as a pedagogical discipline. Many answered with matters of scale, seeing urban design as negotiating a scalar gap between architecture and urban planning. Others answered with issues of the public, seeing urban design as serving the collective communal inhabitants of the city or state. My initial answer was one of mentality, where a project becomes urban when the designers & parties involved adopt attitudes that conceptualize the project in its broader urban context.

However, by core semester’s end, it has become clear to me that urban design is in fact not about scales, not only about the public, and only partially about mindset. Scale-wise, architecture can (and should) absolutely be urban. Sculptural objects like monuments (or “counter-monuments” a la Daniel Bluestone) can be urban landmarks that orient the greater grids of the city (as it does in cities like D.C.) or serve as immediate scalar grounds for urban activities like protests and rallies. Small scale interventions can be as urban as large city planning projects (like the Big Dig), and urban design can even transcend the city toward regional megaprojects (like the CA High-Speed-Rail) or even blur national boundaries (as in the case of the Philippines call centers functioning on the time zones of the States). 

In addition, urban design is not only about serving the public good, but must negotiate between private forces and public governance structures. Urban design must work in the intersecting zone between the incentives of private market-driven capitalism versus more socially oriented ideals regarding the administration of a more Just city. This is true for all forms of governance & economic structures, not only in democratic republics (like the US) but even in more complex models of authoritarian developmentalism that have driven the rapid urban growth of cities in the East. 

What I’ve come to believe now is that urban design begins with a matter of discerning and critiquing the contemporary issues surrounding our cities today. Throughout the academic discourse at our time here in the UD program, the constant theme of contention in contemporary society has pervaded the plethora of readings, viewpoints, and lecturers we have encountered. These issues lie in the role of community advocacy groups for the administration of justice in the city, the role of historic preservation in accelerating (or mitigating) gentrification in the city, or the complicated paradigms between informal settlements and more regulatory planning apparatus’ that force us to confront the notion of “whose city is it anyways?”, among others. These myriads of issues all involve competing yet equally valid perspectives that entail contention and controversy in the city today. What is crucial is our role as designers (and our critiques of these issues) within the larger back and forth pendulum swing of these contemporary issues of contentions.

The importance of our role as designers leads me to another crucial understanding of urban design, which is that while it begins with a critique of contentions, its ends with an intervention in the physical space of the city. One cannot overstate the importance of physically intervening in the urban condition, acts of interventions that accompany and go beyond intangible law or policy reform matters. To design is to intervene in these contemporary issues, and these interventions hold the capacity to project alternative and better futures aimed at changing existing contentions into preferred solutions of consensus. This is why I declared earlier that urban design is only partially about adopting a certain attitudinal mindset in conceptualizing a project in the broader urban context. Our discipline is both a form of intangible knowledge of a current urban condition in a particular moment in time, and simultaneously a proposition for how that condition may be shaped and sculpted in the evolution of the future metropolis. 

In this way, urban design can be understood truly as a bridge discipline, not only between political bodies, community members, advocacy groups, private and public entities, but also between the intangible issues of society and the tangible, physical design of the city. Therefore, urban design can be understood as a cog in the ‘solution’: the city needs both good design and accompanying policy reforms and governance mechanisms that will enable good design to become successfully integrated into the evolution and use of the city long-term. Coupled with both in hand, great accomplishments can be had in the contemporary metropolis today. To that end, while urban design might be understood as the history of contention and strife in the city, it should also be understood as a confluence of harmonistic endeavors that bring together multiple competing interests to impact a holistic positive change in the broader urban context.

In essence, I propose that urban design can be defined as the bridging of ‘tangible’ physical interventions with ‘less-tangible’ contemporary issues of the city, critiquing their contention, intervening in their dialogues, and (if successful) is integrated by the collective public in a way that improves the broader livelihood of the city and beyond.