4.247J / 11.337J
Urban Design Policy Ideals and Action

4.252J, 11.301J

Are there multiple urban designs, and if so, which one is ‘correct’?

What urban design principles best fit different human environments, old and new?

How can good urban design occur in democratic, decentralized settings?

Is urban design a field of planning, large‐scale architecture, landscape, or something else?

Urban design is an increasingly popular and powerful means of shaping settlement, influencing social forces, and accentuating economic activity via the purposeful manipulation of the built environment. Yet the form and realization of urban design are often uncertain. Contrasting ideologies, shifting power structures, and competing imperatives make designers’ jobs challenging. The result is that many human environments, except for a few historic centers and prestige projects, seem little impacted by urban design. At the same time, urban design is riven by ideological divisions between seemingly mutually incompatible groups with little in common. There is only a single city; how can there be multiple urban designs? How is one to evaluate (or decide) which urban design ideals to subscribe to?

This course begins with four assertions. First, urban design is more than a series of stylistic choices; there are ‘good design’ principles that transcend today’s heavily promoted ideals. Second, the contrast between ideals and the overall lack of design in today’s built environment is not inevitable: unrealized potential exists to shape human environments. Third, urban designers must generate both innovative formal ideas and novel means of realizing those ideas, for unrealized urban design cannot benefit people. Fourth, urban design need not associate itself with extremes of political or economic power to achieve its esthetic and functional aims- it can exist in democratic, pluralistic settings.

Over the length of this course, we will explore each of these assertions. Urban Design Ideals and Action is organized as a weekly set of presentation, readings, and structure discussions. Our inquiry will center around ideals in the first half of the semester, and actions in the second. Ideals are theories about the form of the city and region. Ideals are proposed both in theory and in practice, and they usually occupy both of these terrains. Their esthetic assertions about the form of the city often compete with one another, and each ideal rarely admits the legitimacy of its competitors. Actions denote the ability for an urban designer to actually influence any given development condition. Actions both shape and are shaped by ideals. Actions require power, but urban designers have widely varying access to power in different settings; not all actions are available to all designers, nor all ideals.