The Next Big Idea in Urban Design

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María Arquero de Alarcón and Jen Maigret 
URBAN STEWARDSHIP

In North America, the practice of urban design is increasingly facing conditions of disinvestment. Post-industrial Rust Belt cities are especially emblematic of this trend. Within this context, urban design’s next big challenge is to re-establish connections between technologies and construction techniques and their cultural relevance within cities. Think of this as a form of urban stewardship, encompassing the core values of environmental stewardship, but aspiring to link ecology with the daily experience of life in a city. In practice, this would mean ideas that value the material, spatial, and formal development of cities while striving to interlace diverse environmental systems. Urban stewardship would be blind to political boundaries, would involve many scales and points of view, and would generate the level of passion, audacity, and commitment to our cities necessary to achieve the realization of meaningful projects in the present and of radical possibilities in the future.

María Arquero de Alarcón and Jen Maigret are cofounders of MAde Studio and assistant professors at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

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Terry Schwarz 
URBAN-SUBURBAN INVERSION

Many suburbs are becoming more urban, adopting established city-signifiers such as bike lanes, brew pubs, and mixed-use lifestyle centers that approximate the experience of a traditional city. Simultaneously, some cities (especially in the industrial heartland) are becoming less conventionally urban, as population loss and the lingering effects of the foreclosure crisis fuel the aggressive demolition of vacant and abandoned housing. In the aftermath of demolition, residential densities in city neighborhoods may begin to feel distinctly suburban, or even rural, as urban agriculture becomes a widely accepted land use.

It’s easy to dismiss the ersatz urbanism of suburban lifestyle centers as somehow inauthentic, or to decry the de-densification of core cities as destructive. But since these processes are already underway in many metropolitan areas, perhaps it’s time to embrace more fluid ideas about city, suburb, and countryside—and design for the surprising juxtapositions that can occur when an urbane suburb brushes up against a suburbanized city.

Terry Schwarz is the director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Scott Page
PRODUCTIVE SPACE

Our industrial history has indelibly shaped our cities, but industry also has left an undeniable stain on our environment. In the wake of stereotypical factories with smokestacks, industry has evolved; we have large factories and refineries but also logistics hubs, advanced manufacturing, and a growing “maker” movement. So, what are the industrial districts of the future? Urban designers largely leave this question aside. Empty industrial land and buildings are opportunities for something else, it seems. I’ve seen far too many designs that treat this formerly productive space as new mixed-use villages and big-box stores.

It’s time to understand how modern-day industry functions and develop design solutions that create greener, better-connected spaces for production. As much as open spaces are increasingly designed to double as infrastructure for stormwater management or food production, our industrial districts require the same rigor of design thinking. Our cities are engines for productivity. Let’s re-think the spaces we use to move and make things with the same level of urgency we’ve used to improve our downtowns and riverfronts.

Scott Page is the founding principal of Interface Studio, a full-service planning and urban design studio in Philadelphia.

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Scott Bishop
AQUA-INFRASTRUCTURE

Engineered water systems should be used as resources to generate a productive urban ecology. Rather than just creating a waterfront or bioswale, urban design should leverage all water-related infrastructure, including flood controls (walls, berms, floodways) and stormwater structures (gutters, pipes, sumps, snowfields, ditches, drains, pumps, ponds). We should open these up to something beyond their singular uses.

Infrastructure can be used as a multifarious armature that allows for a metabolic transformation at the scale of the city. What is assumed to be waste in a myopic system can be translated into a living framework that cleans our water and air, creates development opportunities, and increases functional habitat, access, and program opportunity. These aqueous, living, infrastructural systems could then become the backbone for revitalized cities where people, plants, and animals interact to create unique places that generate true positive net gain in the human ecological equation.

Scott Bishop is a registered landscape architect and a principal at Stoss, a global design firm specializing in landscape urbanism.

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Kevin Hively
ECONOMIC DESIGN

One big idea is the incorporation of big data, behavioral science, and economics into urban design. The book Nudge (Penguin, 2008) presents great examples of this. To some degree, behavioral science has been used in transportation-systems design, particularly in ideas like traffic calming. But it has not yet penetrated into place-activation strategies, programming models, and development patterns. We have not yet learned to apply the concepts of consumer decision-making and experience into the field of urban design. I call the concept “economic design”—mixing behavioral science with design principles to support economic outcomes.

Kevin Hively is the president of Ninigret Partners, a Rhode Island-based business consultancy for economic development groups and nonprofit organizations.

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Tim Love
BACK-OF-HOUSE DESIGN

Architects and landscape architects working in urban design need to focus on cities’ back-of-house districts. Only design thinking can tackle the physical contradiction between the need for trucks to ship goods and supplies through cities and the need for 21st-century manufacturing districts to be green and walkable in order to attract and retain skilled workers.

The issue should be tackled on two fronts. The first is with innovative building types that include both high-bay spaces with state-of-the-art loading docks and sidewalk-hugging frontage for amenity retail and product showrooms. New industrial buildings should include complementary upper-floor functions, whether smaller-scale “maker” spaces, offices, or live-work studios.

The second is to think through the spatial implications of the “Uberization” of shipping, which will break up the near-monopoly of UPS and FedEx. An on-call distribution system, served by thousands of independent drivers, will result in a greater number of smaller vehicles making many of the deliveries now made by box trucks. This network would require smaller and more accessible warehouses and would reduce the required dimensions for turning radii.

Tim Love is a principal at Utile, a research-based architecture and urban planning firm in Boston.

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Eran Ben-Joseph
INNOVATION AT THE MARGINS

Innovation happens through necessity, and those at the margins of society innovate on a daily basis. From the favelas of South America to the colonias of Texas, marginality brings about never-imagined urban solutions. Decentralizing innovation by giving a voice to non-experts spurs a level of transformative freedom unavailable to specialists who are bound by rules and codes. At the margins, it is practice before theory, creation before planning. With the flow of information from local to global, we can shift away from the individual experts and start focusing on the crowd, transforming urban design through this new sourcing.

Eran Ben-Joseph is a professor and head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Have an idea that can shape our cities? Tweet us at @gbd_mag and use hashtag #GBDbigidea.

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