June 29, 2006

Design quality is key in urban development

  • Adding signature buildings doesn’t necessarily make for wonderful cities or neighborhoods.
    University of New South Wales

    SACVB photo/Richard Reynolds
    San Antonio’s Riverwalk has been a catalyst for property development around it and a big contributor to the city’s tax coffers.

    Cities and suburbs evolve continuously. What will they be like in 25 years, a generation ahead? What are the trends? To what extent should public policies intervene in shaping them?

    Those of us involved in the public policy arena have learned that the ability of the public sector to shape cities and their sub-areas through the use of controls and incentives is limited in democratic societies.

    In autocratic societies, where the bulk of urban development is now taking place, it is different. Property developments in such countries may be interesting and seductive, but we shouldn’t be over-awed by them. International architects love to design individual buildings there because they offer a freedom of expression in their search for a competitive advantage in our globalized economic world.

    But there are lost opportunities in designing that way that have economic consequences. Autocratic societies can deal with them easily in the short run, but not the long run. Why then do we seem to be following them?

    Looking ahead

    Much is rapidly changing in our contemporary world, but much more is slowly evolving and even more has and will remain constant. In countries such as China and the United Arab Emirates, cities are being turned upside down and inside out (12 percent of the world’s construction cranes are at work in Dubai and a similar proportion in Shanghai). In North America and Europe, however, many current development trends will continue well into the foreseeable future.

    Traditional city cores will retain their role as the symbolic heart of metropolitan regions. They are the locations of major public institutions, such as museums, art galleries and governmental buildings. Outlying centers will compete effectively as providers of commercial and entertainment services.

    In Europe, much effort has been made over the past four decades to upgrade the quality of the public environment of the outlying centers and sub-centers. As they have become more attractive, more people have chosen to live in them. So, too, in the United States.

    In countries such as the United States and Australia, 70 percent of the population will favor the traditional suburban way of life. In these countries, suburbs will thus continue to spread amongst higher density conglomerations. To compete effectively with each other, these new centers will be coerced to have good designs for their public realms -- the space between buildings. Streets and other open spaces will have to be pleasant places for the long-neglected pedestrian. The centers will also be concerned in presenting a bold face to the world. They will seek the so-called wow factor.

    Are signature buildings good?

    Developments in construction technology have freed up architects to create myriad free forms. There are many examples. Do we want these new nuclei of cities to look like Lujiazui in Shanghai or central Beijing? One does not have to go that far to think about the impact of a series of signature buildings on the quality of public space. Seattle’s new library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, is a startling design and a source of pride.

    Such new buildings do not necessarily make wonderful cities or wonderful neighborhoods.

    Los Angeles is struggling to make something of Grand Avenue other than the undistinguished, rather boring street that it presently is. It has three new world-renowned buildings -- the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall -- within spitting distance of each other. It could have been a grand place, but there was no prior consideration of what Grand Avenue should be like and how the new buildings should contribute to each other.

    Chinese authorities, immensely proud of what has been built in Shanghai, are also asking the question. What is it really like to be in Lujiazui? Could it have done better? Many architects and civic leaders don’t care. For them, buildings are billboards for their cities and themselves. Lujiazui certainly makes a fine photograph from the Bund across the river.

    Looking at what works

    We can learn much from well-loved places in our cities and suburbs. We know what makes livable streets, squares and other public places. We know what makes a good city block. Portland has them. The problem is, as the late Jane Jacobs once lamented, “planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.” Those of us designing policies within which property development takes place in urban renewal and on greenfield sites have learned to look at what works.

    We have learned that fine environments can be designed for a wide variety of development densities and that open spaces in cities can be both wonderful places for people as well as poor places for them to have lunch or watch the passing scene.

    We know that the way buildings meet the street is fundamental to making good streets. We know how to create buildings, city centers and neighborhoods that are less energy hungry in their construction, running and maintenance (although admittedly our science is still weak). We know what makes a walkable residential area. We know what kinds of neighborhoods afford independent behavior for children. We know how environmental quality makes for economic success for developers.

    Money-making urban design

    Consider, for instance, the economic success of Glendale, Calif., based on its well thought out urban design guidelines since the mid-1970s. Initial success led to the property developers insisting that subsequent development continue to improve the overall quality of public spaces.

    Consider, too, the impact of public investment in San Antonio’s Riverwalk, a delightful place to linger. It has been an extraordinary catalyst for property development around it. Dating back to the 1930s, Riverwalk continues to be improved.

    The contribution both of these examples make to the tax coffers of their cities is enormous.

    In both cases, it was a handful of individuals who saw the potential of good public area design to civic and economic benefits. Too often, we have thought that simply creating more open space is the solution. It is not. It did not take New York City long to rescind its legislation offering developers a bonus for providing plazas in front of their buildings when its citizens saw the results on Sixth Avenue.

    Looking further ahead

    The design of the public realm is a continuing process. Its fundamental character will remain unchanged but new problems will have to be addressed. Crunch time in dealing with problems such as the shortage of water and fossil fuels has yet to come but is not far away. Global warming, while not a proven fact, seems to be a reality.

    Wide income disparities still exist amongst the populations of urban regions and it is possible that unless the public sector intervenes, many of the centers of our emerging multi-nucleated metropolitan areas will end up being low-quality environments serving low-income populations. These populations may also have poor access to services.

    It does not have to be like that. The problems are, however, social and economic in nature. They may have consequences for the design of the public environment, but however well that environment is designed it will not solve social problems.

    Jon Lang is a professor of architecture at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He is the author of “Urban Design: the American Experience” and “Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products.”

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