The interdisciplinary Graduate Group for the Design of Urban Places was established in 1996, and offers the Master of Urban Design degree, a one-year post-professional program that draws students from across the globe.
Last spring Dean Wolch and the Graduate Division, invited Dennis Frenchman (MIT), Darren Petrucci (Arizona State University), and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris (UCLA) to conduct an external review of the program. The Graduate Group invited them to present their perspectives on the future of the field at a symposium held during their visit.
Donlyn Lyndon concluded the symposium with remarks excerpted here.
Today’s discussion has confirmed the vitality of the urban design field, and posed questions for urban design education.
The original rationale for the UC Berkeley Master of Urban Design program was that “[M]ore and more land is developed in patterns that we know to be dehumanizing and wasteful, our core cities continue to decline. Repair of the country’s urban infrastructure is an increasingly important priority and patterns of transportation and energy consumption demand restructuring…. there is an urgent need for designers who are able to work effectively in teams across a large range of scales and with a well-developed understanding of urban places and the interdependencies of the fabric of buildings, landscapes, public ways, and the social interactions that shape them.”
What are the moves that Urban Designers make? They open paths, draw connections, give imaginable form for processes of development. They give measure to goals for the ways that cities can become, helping cities and residents navigate possibilities. They create the underlying structures through which cities and investors deploy their resources.
How do we channel those forces and their latent potential into worlds that are better, have consequence in the lives of generations, capture and release mental energies? How can we know when we are building places that will bring joy and understanding—or when they will loom as hollow symbols of power and nightmares for the underprivileged?
We need to make urban design education effective in recognizing what and who we are, how the natural world enfolds us, how and where we consume resources, what will provide inhabitants with both satisfactions and opportunities. And we must learn to do it at varying spatial scales. We need to learn to take action, be persuasive, understand reservations, and forge new perspectives.
A one-year program is neither the beginning nor the end of an urban designer’s education. It is, rather, a turning point in understanding and imagination.
Today, design ideas are communicated differently than in the past, and the social and environmental consequences can be more adequately assessed. Remarkable advances allow us to conceive forms and relationships not easily imaginable and more closely track the impacts of our actions.
But where does this lead? Rather than lead, it spreads, consumes, absorbs and mystifies, sometimes even clarifies and exhilarates. We are in danger of losing our way, or rather “ways”—for such complexity cannot be subsumed within one way of proceeding. Many ways are needed, or else we may miss larger transformations taking place beyond our reach.
There are compelling arguments for expanding our attention to underserved people, incorporating new ways of thinking about space, form, materials and digital opportunities, and inventive ways to help students design in fresh, creative ways.
There have also been cautions. Novelty can put a gloss on forms and relationships that are inherently destructive, or can tear the fabric of understandings and affections people have for their surroundings. Cultural norms and economic factors affect understanding and tolerance of change. Many have little chance to root their affections in place, or enjoy their immediate surroundings.
Cities have been designed to enable the efficient exchange of goods and the opportunities for work, typically giving priority to the automobile, and sapping the energies arising from concentration and accessibility. We need to learn again how to make walking and seeing and pausing and veering a part of the choreography of cities, building our bodies and spirits, making the physical world more accommodating, and providing room for initiative and possibility. These are things that urban design, physical design properly imagined, can provide.
Whatever else we may do, we must make cities and places that perform for the public good, where people can grasp opportunities and forge lives with significance. Cities that all can inhabit in a full, satisfying and productive way.