Tianjin City Building

In September, Studio Urbis was asked by the Hexi District government in Tianjin, China, to prepare a conceptual design for four sites divided by an intersection of a 12-lane arterial highway and six-lane “local collector.”

We took this project on as “research” into the problems of superblocks with increasingly wide roadways and setbacks that predominate contemporary Chinese development. This current pattern reinforces boundaries between sites, with each development discontinuous from the rest of the city. Our strategy was to extend the pedestrian fabric of the district into the form of the buildings as three dimensional paths that move through multiple levels of all four sites and span the river of cars. The city of Tianjin, agreeing with our analysis of the district, has accepted our proposal for an expanded pedestrian environment.

Navigating the Waters of Collaboration

By Jean Eisberg, Master of City and Regional Planning ‘07

To a planner, China is opportunity. Over a billion people and growing; rising skyscrapers and a soaring GDP; poverty, pollution, and potential. The issues are rich, but the place is even richer.

During the spring 2007 semester, I traveled to Jiaxing, China with a group of students, faculty, and professionals for an interdisciplinary design studio. We were fortunate to be able to collaborate with students and professors at Tongji University, located nearby in Shanghai. The Tongji group guided us during the trip and throughout the studio.

I studied China as an undergraduate student and while visiting the country again, I was reminded of why I was initially so intrigued. This is a country whose history, politics and social structures have changed radically over the past several decades. Jiaxing exemplifies this dynamic.

Jiaxing boasts a mix of cultural and historic amenities as well as modern industry and technology. Water defines the landscape; it is, at times, beautiful, but it is also polluted and often strewn with debris. Nearly empty eight-lane roads portend the growth to come. But, today, it is difficult to differentiate Jiaxing from the many other mid-size industrial cities in China. Our group needed to enhance the existing assets in Jiaxing to bring out its unique identity and ensure its competitiveness in the region. The central government’s proposed high-speed rail station offered an incredible opportunity to make this happen.

After returning to Berkeley, it was time to get to work. But, as planners, urban designers, architects and landscape architects, we did not always speak the same language. We spent several weeks sketching, arguing, and jumping in and out of scales. Out of the chaos emerged some great ideas about water, open space, transportation, energy, architecture, and urban design. Our recommendations encompassed all scales — from architectural materials and façade details to a transit plan and renewable energy resources — reflecting the range of disciplines represented among the students in our studio.

The Tongji students helped us to understand the traditions, policies, and culture that define and affect architecture and development in the region. Collaborating with our colleagues at Tongji was one of the highlights for me. With a year of college-level Mandarin muddled in the back reaches of my brain, I got a chance to practice speaking and drew laughter for my errant tones. But even better was the chance to share opinions on what planning means in our respective countries. As one Tongji student admitted, China plans and develops without always considering the repercussions or offering mitigations. I countered that in the United States, legislation and politics often necessitate intense scrutiny and lengthy processes that can prevent projects from moving forward. We both wondered about the middle

I still see opportunity in China in terms of its tremendous growth. But I also see the possibility for China to become a leader in sustainable development, something we can all learn from.

Overcoming Culture Shock through Design

by Linda Roberson, M.U.D. Student

In composing this short piece about my experience in the China studio this spring, I grow ever more grateful for the opportunity, as lessons continue to be revealed.

Green space in Jiaxing offers an incredible opportunity to design for mobility, agriculture and recreation.
Green space in Jiaxing offers an incredible opportunity to design for mobility, agriculture and recreation.

China is vast, exciting, frustrating, and complex — like nothing else I’ve experienced. As a graduate student in Urban Design this studio experience was remarkable, if not pivotal for my future career. The studio was a collaboration of students from various departments such as Architecture, City and Regional Planning, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design. The design program called for a sustainable city — one that would respond to current environmental issues in China as well as the local culture of the design site.

While there were certainly bouts of chaos and confusion during the China studio, my enduring memory of the experience is of the endless opportunities that it presented. My colleagues and I worked hard to implement a clear design direction and strategy by creating a structure for the class early on. Often, when we couldn’t get the answers or direction we needed, we contacted professionals and consultants who had the experience and knowledge to steer us in the right path. In retrospect, this methodology was at times frustrating but also incredibly rewarding and rich with lessons for young designers such as myself. As part of an interdisciplinary design team composed of undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Environmental Design, I realized early on that I needed to share with the class exactly what it was urban designers do. I wanted to learn from my classmates and they were probably expecting the same from me. I remember describing the urban designer as one who works at a variety of scales, develops frameworks and basically prepares the outline so that a particular area of land can be turned over to the architect or landscape architect for development and specific design implementation.

I would be lying if I said that my ideas were accepted without resistance or that I didn’t face language barriers. But slowly the lessons began to unfold. For me, this studio was not about disciplines or design territory, sustainability, or deliverables. Instead the China studio was a unique experience that allowed me to question some of my own definitions regarding design practice, site, and culture in a productive and meaningful way. In conclusion I can say that if China is a frontier goldmine for an entrepreneur, for a student with initiative, it was a blank slate. It was only later that I realized that this was one of most important lessons that I would learn through the China studio.

Speeding Toward a New Jiaxing

“There is an ecological apocalypse unfolding in China right now.”[1] The statistics bear the point.

Of the world’s 10 most polluted cities, five are in China. A new coal power plant is built every ten days. The effects on the economy, humans and nature are severe. Pollution and environmental damage have created losses ranging from 7 to 20% of the GDP over the last two decades.

There are approximately 300,000 premature deaths each year attributed to air pollution alone. A quarter of China’s 1.3 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water. China has the world’s fastest growing auto market, giving it the notorious label of the world’s leader in vehicle fatalities and second in oil consumption behind the US. Currently, the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, China is on pace to surpass the US in 2008 — some researchers even argue that it already has.

Magnetic levitation train line opened in 2004
Magnetic levitation train line opened in 2004

During the spring 2007 semester, students at Tongji University in Shanghai, China and the University of California, Berkeley in the United States took on this challenge, collaborating on a design studio in Jiaxing, China, a second-tier city 80km outside of Shanghai. The group included undergraduate and graduate students pursuing coursework in architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and urban design, as well as faculty and professionals from both countries.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a private foundation based in San Francisco, California provided a grant to the group to explore international urban sustainability. The Jiaxing City Government partnered with our group and posed a set of urban development research questions to the students. The charge was to develop a plan for the City in anticipation of a proposed high-speed rail line connecting the Shanghai Pudong International Airport to Hangzhou, with stops in Shanghai and Jiaxing. As an added challenge, Jiaxing’s station stop was proposed in an agricultural area 10km away from the existing central city. This new rail line could connect Jiaxing to Shanghai in 15 minutes and to the airport in less than a half hour. What would this compression in time and space mean for Jiaxing?

The students identified two major challenges to address: China’s environmental crisis and connecting the proposed rail station to the central city

First, the students proposed a transit corridor between the new station and the existing city center. They recognized the opportunity to create a new hub within the City, but wanted to maximize accessibility to the new station and the central city, to encourage investment in both anchors as well as in the corridor between them.

Second, they proposed an integrated sustainable design strategy for Jiaxing. Adopting the “3 E’s” principles of ecology, economy and equity, they endeavored to improve Jiaxing’s air and water quality, expand renewable energy sources and reduce waste, while maintaining a competitive economy. Moreover, they sought to create an equitable design that would accommodate all types of people, regardless of age, income or other status.

Despite the troubling statistics, there is opportunity to make real improvements in China’s environment, if the government and citizens choose to take on the challenge. Through sustainable design and policy measures, China has the potential to emerge from environmental crisis as an environmental leader. Jiaxing could serve as a model for sustainable development in China, providing its citizens a better life and a more environmentally sound, economically strong and equitable society.

[1] Porritt, Jonathon. “China: The Most Important Story in the World.” Green Futures. September 2006: 3.

Tianjin transit-oriented development: Principles and Prototypes

A Collaboration between the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute and the University of California, Berkeley College of Environmental Design


tianjin_1 From 1998-2002 China experienced unprecedented growth, with an annual GDP increase of 7.8% – the fastest in the world. It is expected that over the next 20 to 30 years China will complete its transition from a planned to market economy, fully integrate itself into world trade, and become the world’s largest and most powerful economy [1].

Sustainability is a concern shared by most Western professionals who are consulting with the Chinese government, either directly or indirectly, to devise a development strategy that will support its vigorous growth. Statistics reveal that the U.S., now the world’s largest economy, uses 25% of the world’s natural resources. If China – with four times the U.S.’s population – develops similar consumption patterns, it will consume all of the world’s non-renewable resources when its economy reaches full fruition in 20-30 years.

Rising incomes in China are fueling a dramatic increase in automobile ownership: it is estimated that between 12,000 and 14,000 new cars are added to China’s streets each day, increasing traffic congestion and air pollution, and spawning the development of thousands of kilometers of new highways [2]. Transit-oriented development, or TOD, is one element of a sustainable development strategy that can help to lessen the burden of growing cities on the world’s limited supply of non-renewable resources. TOD, supported by a detailed and integrative policy framework, promotes the efficient use of land and development of a compact urban form, while curbing automobile usage by creating incentives for transit, walking, bicycling and other non-motorized modes of transportation.


Tianjin: a snapshot


Metropolitan Tianjin is the third largest city in China, after Beijing and Shanghai. With a population of 10 million, Tianjin reports directly to the Chinese government and benefits from direct access to centralized sources of funding for large-scale development projects. The port at Tanggu (30 km southeast of Tianjin proper) fuels much of Tianjin’s economy. Tianjin’s major industries include clothing and textiles, chemicals and electronics.

Tianjin’s Central Station is one of northern China’s major railway hubs and serves as a junction point for the Beijing-Shanghai lines, while also providing direct access to other northeastern and southern provinces. After Beijing was chosen to host the 2008 Olympics, the City of Tianjin invested heavily in improvements to urban transport – most prominently a new light rail line connecting Tianjin proper with the port of Tanggu. The City is also expanding existing rail lines within Tianjin proper to support its growing population of residents and commuters.

Studio goals and approach

In the fall of 2004, UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design was asked by the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute to develop principles and prototypes for TOD in Tianjin. The studio was comprised of fifteen graduate students in architecture, landscape architecture and city and regional planning, and led by three instructors. The interdisciplinary nature of the studio sought to combine a wide range of skills to propose a plan for new TOD in Tianjin.

The Institute suggested four sites in Tianjin, from which the studio chose three, as platforms for their ideas. Each site is distinct in its geography, history and local character, but they shared two things in common: first, on each site there is at least on transit station serving the city’s expanding rail system; and second, each site has a direct connection to Tianjin’s network of rivers and canals.

The studio viewed the river as the conceptual “thread” running through the three proposals. Echoing an approach of “ecosystem as infrastructure” [3], the studio envisioned the river as the City’s main artery, with riverfront paths to feed pedestrians and bicyclists into the larger network of roads and railway transit. A plan for commercial, residential and public land uses would strategically fill in the areas between transit stations and the river, thereby helping the City to gain the most from its investment by directly linking people to the transit system.


tiajin_3The studio authored a broad set of principles to inform the planning and design process. Based on these principles — which are further distilled into a set of strategies and guidelines — we developed prototypes for three sites in Tianjin.

The “kit of parts” breaks this set of principles down into physical components and highlights the more specific elements of each plan. Tianjin Municipal Government can use this menu of options in developing future prototypes for development.

Principle 1 – High Density/Mixed Use

Create high density mixed-use neighborhoods to support transit. A successful transit-oriented development creates a wide range of destinations (offices, community centers, and recreation areas) within easy walking or biking distance of transit.

Principle 2 – Pedestrian/Bicyclist Network

Develop an independent pedestrian and bicycle network to support transit and access through neighborhoods. Directly connecting pedestrian and bicycle-only pathways to transit stations encourages the use of non-motorized transport. These car-free pathways also increase foot traffic visibility for local businesses.

Principle 3 – Transit Connections

Facilitate connections to transit with a fine-grained street grid. An urban street grid works best when it incorporates a clear hierarchy of street types. The grid allows for the dispersion of travel and access through neighborhoods, while the hierarchy provides different street environments to accommodate both faster and slower traffic.

Principle 4 – Public Realm

Create spaces for social interaction. Planning urban neighborhoods with an inviting public realm is key to creating vibrant communities. Streets, parks and open spaces should provide places for recreation and leisure. Buildings should be designed with outward-facing elements — such as balconies and porches — to enliven the streetscape.

Principle 5 – Self-sufficient Neighborhoods

Design “Zero Waste” self-sufficient neighborhoods. Generating much of their power needs on-site, self-sufficient neighborhoods create less demand on the centralized infrastructure for non-renewable resources. Block designs should include systems to generate energy, and to collect and reuse water and waste.

Principle 6 – Heterogeneous Communities

Promote diversity and choice within neighborhoods, encouraging the formation of heterogeneous communities. Neighborhoods should incorporate a range of housing types, services and amenities to allow residents of different income types and lifestyles to live in the same area.

Principle 7 – Existing Site Conditions

Respect the site’s history and natural features by incorporating existing elements into future site plans. One of the most recognizable features in Tianjin is the river network from which the city grew over time. Incorporating existing natural and historical features into new development is an important strategy for creating viable, sustainable communities that identify with the city’s past.

Conclusions and Recommendations

tiajin_4This project examined opportunities for TOD in three very different contexts. While all of the plans are based on the principles of TOD, they apply these principles differently to respond to the characteristics of each site.

We identified several obstacles to effective TOD in Tianjin during our planning and design process.

First, the current development process in China results in large-scale, master-developed projects with repetitive architecture on super-blocks. This development pattern does not support transit and is not consistent with TOD principles of mixed-use, public realm, diversity, and site history. The city should aim to better balance architectural diversity, solar access requirements and environmental sustainability goals.

Second, the city’s efforts to expand roads and build large thoroughfares are not consistent with the TOD principle of connectivity, which requires a dense network of streets. Some may believe that a dense street network causes traffic, but in fact, it provides many alternative routes to travelers, which spreads traffic out. Instead of expanding roads, Tianjin should create a dense network of narrower streets to support transit, bicycling, and walking.

Third, we noted many examples of automobile priority in new development. For example, many new buildings have a large parking lot in front of the building. This facilitates automobile use, but disadvantages pedestrians who have to walk through the parking lot to get to the entrance. It also creates a “dead space” along the street, which is unpleasant for pedestrians and bicyclists. Instead, buildings should be sited close to the street, with any parking in the rear. This encourages people to take transit and then walk or bicycle to the building rather than drive, which reduces traffic and creates a lively streetscape.

Finally, Tianjin has unique natural assets and a special history, but most new development does not reflect this. In order to create a positive image and identity for the city, new development should incorporate these assets, such as the river and canal system, agricultural history, and existing open space.

These are challenging issues, but they are critical to the success of TOD in Tianjin. If Tianjin is committed to TOD, they can be resolved. Our plans and principles provide guidance, and the city can use demonstration projects to test these development models.

Key Steps

We identified seven key steps to implementing TOD in Tianjin. Each is discussed below.

Policy Framework

Adopting a clear set of TOD policies is critical. We have developed a proposed set of TOD principles, strategies and guidelines. The City of Tianjin could create a TOD district for all areas within 1 km of a transit station in which these policies would apply. The city could then create a specific plan for each TOD district that outlines a development vision based on these policies [1-4].

Implementation Partners

Implementing TOD requires the participation of multiple partners [5]. In Tianjin, these may include city agencies, the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute, transit operators (subway, light rail, and bus), the private sector (developers, financial institutions, and other businesses), the central government, and Tianjin residents. Each of these partners can contribute to a distinct aspect of TOD. The city may lease or sell land, provide infrastructure, supply funding, and control the review of development proposals. The Urban Planning and Design Institute and transit operators may work with the city to develop TOD policies and specific plans. The private sector may develop and invest in TOD projects. The central government may provide funding or technical assistance. Finally, Tianjin residents may offer feedback on proposed plans and development proposals. To facilitate coordination, the city could create a TOD committee with representatives from each partner to review and approve development proposals in TOD districts.

Incorporation into Plans

To be truly effective, Tianjin should incorporate TOD concepts and principles into plans at multiple levels — regional, city, and site — as well as into plans of various kinds (i.e. land use, housing, and transit). For example, the city could include TOD principles in its updated General Plan as well as its Transit Plan and the Regional Strategic Plan. Tianjin could also develop a pedestrian plan and a bicycle plan[6,7]. These are critical components of TOD since most transit riders either walk or bicycle to the station.

Land Allocation

Architectural diversity is a key element of TOD. A site with many different building types and styles serves a variety of uses and housing needs, which allows a mix of people to live, work, and shop in one area. This can be achieved by encouraging multiple developers to work on a site: a group of developers could work together on each phase of a project; a site could be separated into smaller pieces with different developers for each piece; or the city could limit the total number of units on a site designed or developed by one entity.

Development around stations can also be structured in several ways: a developer could acquire the air rights above an underground station while the city retains control of the ground, the city could lease or sell the land to a developer but keep certain areas for transit facilities, or the city and developer could share construction or operating costs.


In some cases, particularly in suburban or edge stations, it may be necessary to implement the specific plan in several phases. However, a full mix of uses (residential, office, commercial, public facilities, and open space) should be included in each phase if possible. This ensures that the neighborhood functions as a mixed-use community, rather than as isolated islands of housing or office development.

One phasing strategy is land banking. This means concentrating development and density in specific parcels and leaving other parcels undeveloped, or developing them at lower intensity interim uses that allow for higher intensities later. This allows high-density development to occur around the station over a longer time frame, which conserves land and reduces sprawl [11].


Plan review is important to ensure that proposed development complies with TOD principles and the specific plan. The City could issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) that asks developers to submit proposals for an element of the specific plan. The TOD committee could review these proposals for the quality of their urban and pedestrian design (including traffic and parking), environmental sustainability, and transit impact.

Housing development should serve a variety of incomes. One strategy for this is inclusionary zoning, which requires that a percentage of the units in each development (often 10-20%) are affordable to lower-income households. Another approach is to create a “housing protection district,” in which any affordable housing that is demolished has to be replaced in new buildings. The city could also provide a “density bonus” that allows 15-25% more units than normally allowed under the zoning if developers include a certain percentage of affordable housing units. These units should be scattered throughout the site, not concentrated in one area.


The City of Tianjin is making a significant investment in its rail network. TOD can help Tianjin realize of the benefits of this investment through “value capture” — mechanisms that return to the City some of the economic value generated by the transit system and the development pattern of TOD. For example, lease payments from developers to the city can be adjusted based on the increase in land value due to TOD, as reflected in regular appraisals. Alternatively, the city can require developers to return a percentage of their profits to the city with their lease payments each year.

This “captured value” should not go to the City’s general fund. It should further support TOD by subsidizing or enhancing transit, paying for landscaping and maintenance of parks and public facilities, or providing funding for affordable housing. Revenues could also go to a “TOD fund” for future TOD projects.

TOD and Tianjin’s Future

Tianjin currently faces many challenges: a booming population, rapid growth in vehicle ownership, and increasing congestion and pollution. At the same time, the city has great assets: a rich history, a river and canal network, strong neighborhoods, and a growing transit system.

By investing in transit, Tianjin is taking an important step towards a more sustainable future. TOD represents the next step. The principles, plans, and guidelines outlined in this report present an opportunity for Tianjin to not only create a future that is more economical, livable, and sustainable than the present, but also to become a leader in progressive planning and a model of responsible development for other cities in China.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that TOD is not a cure-all for the challenges that Tianjin faces. Other policies are also needed: in particular, pricing of vehicle ownership and use to reflect its full social and environmental costs, and policies to encourage resource conservation and the use of renewable energy sources. A holistic approach that addresses both the demand and supply of resources will be most effective at reducing congestion.

Studio Instructors

Harrison S. Fraker, FAIA, Dean, College of Environmental Design
David E. Dowall, Director, Institute for Urban and Regional Development and Professor, Department of City and Regional Planning
Tom Lollini, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Physical and Environmental Planning


John Bela
Peter Benoit
Susan Frith
Alan Glauch
Tavaine Green
Joe Jacoby
Emily S. Johnson
Julie Kim
Sandra Lozano
Luis Mejias
Terri O’Connor
Aditi Rao
Jay Stagi
Pitchayada Treetiphut
Kit Wang


1. Justin Yifu Lin, “Is China’s Growth Real and Sustainable?”, China Center for Economic Research, Peking University (http://ccer.pku.edu.cn/download/3024-1.pdf), 2004.

2. Robert Cervero, Lecture (April 11, 2005), City and Regional Planning 219: Comparative International Transportation, University of California, Berkeley Department of City and Regional Planning.

3. Martin C. Pedersen, “Eternal Optimist: Architect William McDonough has witnessed China’s rapid modernization and sees hope for sustainable development,” Metropolis, (http://www.metropolismag.com/cda/story.php?artid=1130), January 24, 2005.

4. Robert Cervero, et al, “Transit-Oriented Development in the United States: Experience, Challenges, and Prospects,” Transit Cooperative Research Program, Transportation Research Board (http://gulliver.trb.org/publications/tcrp/tcrp_rpt_102.pdf), 2004.

5. The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development, Dittmar, Hank & Gloria Ohland (Eds.), Island Press (http://www.islandpress.com), 2004.

6. St. Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework, Ken Greenburg, St. Paul Riverfront Corporation http://www.riverfrontcorporation.com/page4.asp

7. Getting it Right: Preventing Sprawl in Coyote Valley, Greenbelt Alliance, Solomon WRT http://www.greenbelt.org/resources/reports/report_coyotevalley.html

8. Pleasant Hill BART Transit Village Final Development Plan, Contra Costa County http://www.ccreach.org/redevelopment/redev_ph_specific.cfm http://www.ccreach.org/redevelopment/redev_ph_finaldp.cfm

9. City of Vancouver, Canada, Urban Design guidelines http://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/commsvcs/currentplanning/urbandesign/

10. City of Oakland, California, Pedestrian Master Plan http://www.oaklandnet.com/government/Pedestrian/index.html

11. City of San Francisco, California, Department of Parking and Traffic, Bicycle Plan http://bicycle.sfgov.org/site/dptbike_index.asp?id=29438

12. William Huang, “The Effects of Transportation Infrastructure on Nearby Property Values: A Review of the Literature,” UC Berkeley IURD Working Paper #620, 1994 http://www-iurd.ced.berkeley.edu/workingpapers_1990-1995.htm

13. American Public Transit Association, Research on the Value of Transit-Oriented Development http://www.apta.com/research/info/online/land_use.cfm

14. Michael Duncan and Robert Cervero, “Transit’s Value-Added: Effects of Light and Commuter Rail Services on Commercial Land Values,” University of California at Berkeley, 2001 http://www.apta.com/research/info/briefings/documents/cervero_duncan.pdf
15. Hong Kong Mass Transit Rail Corporation Property Development: http://www.mtr.com.hk/eng/properties/propertyportfolio1.htm Consultancy Services: http://www.mtr.com.hk/eng/consultant/consultant1.html

Design activism for whom?

I have tried my whole career to make “hidden” injustices visible, to use their spatial geometries as agents of change.

This article is inspired by Ari Goldstein ‘04 and Matt Murray ’04 whom I had the pleasure of teaching in ED1 and LA 242 and who now challenge me by their creative courage to make the world better through design activism.

Jingletown Homes, Oakland, Peter Waller/Pyatok Architects Inc Often the most disenfranchised want a symbol of the "American dream" demonstrating how "Conservative [traditional] form frequently serves socially transformative purposes,"
Jingletown Homes, Oakland, Peter Waller/Pyatok Architects Inc Often the most disenfranchised want a symbol of the “American dream” demonstrating
how “Conservative [traditional] form frequently serves socially transformative purposes,”
Let me get several things straight at the outset. Although I’ve been asked to write about a subset of activity that is labeled design activism, it is obvious that all design is design activism. No architectural design is ever implemented through inactivity. Building anything requires considerable force. There is no such thing as passive design. Even passive solar design is assertive. Preservation requires action. The ‘no build’ alternative is an act of aggression. And certainly architecture to serve status quo powers is seldom submissive and often brutal.

Every act of city making, landscape architecture, environmental planning and architecture is a creative act, a direct action to achieve an end, the very definition of activism. For some, this activism serves to push the boundaries of self expression. For others it pushes or constricts the boundaries of society. In all cases design creates an order, however temporary and deconstructed, that elevates some political will. Every design action is a political act that concretizes power and authority.

Form makers follow political function and order it whether the designer leads social transformations or celebrates corporate and military authority. But the form may be deceiving. Radical form most often advances the agenda of the elite within the dominant society seeking to conserve its power. Conservative form frequently serves socially transformative purposes, particularly for the oppressed and poor. But beyond aesthetics is there substantive difference in the various political approaches designers employ? Yes, it is a question of design activism for whom.

 Types of Design Activism

Small moves of green infrastructure nuanced in local conditions connect across the landscape attracting birds, providing wildlife habitat and neighborhood amenities while reducing stormwater runoff and improving water quality. Conceptual study, Los Angeles River.
Small moves of green infrastructure nuanced in
local conditions connect across the landscape
attracting birds, providing wildlife habitat and
neighborhood amenities while reducing stormwater
runoff and improving water quality. Conceptual
study, Los Angeles River.

As with most matters architectural, typologies explicate. Five types of design postures illustrate political activism as follows:

  1. The Blissfully Naïve
  2. The Savvy Naïve
  3. Servants
  4. Contextualists
  5. Catalysts

The Blissfully Naïve are typically spatially talented and contextually ignorant. They simply do not see the connectedness of systems beyond their architecture. This allows them to design an airport in Chigu Lagoon, Taiwan causing the extinction of the endangered black-faced spoonbill and the loss of 24,000 jobs in fishing, or to design Orange County subdivisions in China undermining local culture and creating unattainable objects of status. Can the design of the building really be separated from the decision about its location? For the blissfully naïve it can. They are so focused on the form-making of objects that they are blind to the political impacts of their actions. They have unusual tunnel and no peripheral vision. Because they can draw and create space, they have been rewarded in school where design is frequently separated from its political consequences to focus on the development of form-making skills. Later, sheltered in the best corporate firms, they work without having to confront the political or environmental consequences of their action. I believe the blissfully naïve truly don’t know whose values they concretize and whose politics they advance. They misspeak with sincerity that there is no relationship between architecture and politics.

Second, are the Savvy Naïve who are usually less talented spatially and more aware of connectedness. They feign naiveté to cover political shrewdness. They know power when they see it and cast their lot with the powerful to get commissions. They are so pleased to get to design something big that they pretend not to know better. They understand the political implications of their design work but claim ignorance. The Savvy Naïve can develop, as the architect Thomas Leitersdorf did, the Israeli strategy to control the Palestinians by capturing the most ground with the fewest settlements possible. His is a brilliant, architecturally inspired, military action to take over hilltops and dominate the entire West Bank while occupying only two per cent of the land. This same architect, apparently with a straight face, claims, “I’m weak on politics.” And further, “architecture doesn’t influence politics.” The Savvy Naïve designer is well aware of the politics he advances and is an active accomplice to political power, but he pleads to be just an architect.

The third type are Servants, which includes most designers They describe their role as serving clients, and, when questioned, they too plead that they are only giving form to their clients’ needs. Indeed an individual design act, a single building or park, may seem inconsequential in the broader political context, but this excuse is a convenient disconnect. These designers understand and often support the normative political agendas of their clients. Although the servant role might be viewed as demeaning, these designers argue that it is fundamental to a service profession; while not acknowledging their complicit role in giving artistic expression to powerful interests, be they private, corporate or state.In fact, the very power of these clients is attractive due to the ease with it enables the designer’s art. It is this subservient political role and the artistic license it allows that Phillip Johnson referenced when he said that all architects are “whores” to those with power. It is here that we often see radical form serving regressive social and aggressive military ends.

The fourth type Contextualists. Our college explores contextualism and produces good contextual designers. They take into account history, culture, and environment, especially at the site scale. They may play servant roles but in most cases will try to address broader social issues within the bounds of polite politics. This frequently pays off with an unusual, almost accidental coup de main for a cause like environmental justice or sustainability. Contextualists support more radical activists although they may not be themselves.

Agents for Change

Viewing Tower, LA 96C (former) Nike Missile Site, Los Angeles.
Viewing Tower, LA 96C
(former) Nike Missile Site, Los Angeles.

The fifth type are Catalysts. These are architectural agents of change, the group usually considered activist designers, but remember all the types are political activists. Other designers call this group radical designers, largely to marginalize them and stigmatize their design. Admittedly some aren’t skilled or savvy form makers. Others like Sam Mockbee and Walter Hood are. Catalysts see design not only as a symbolic and utilitarian end but also a stimulus to bring about political transformations.

Environmental Justice

Issues of justice have long been a central focus of our Department of City and Regional Planning. Unequal distribution of basic resources like housing and open space, inaccessibility and exclusion motivate many planners and a few designers who work as advocates for the poor and dispossessed. Long before Paul Davidoff gave such efforts a name, advocate planners, people like Catherine Bauer Wurster worked to provide suitable housing for all Americans. Mike Teitz, among others, carried the effort forward in policy, especially related to affordable and rental housing. Graduates of the college were involved in creating Bridge Housing, a non-profit leader in building affordable housing. Some architects, most notably, Sam Davis, Mike Pyatok and Peter Waller, have dedicated personal and professional lives to creating housing that is not just affordable but also beautiful and livable. Others have been aggressive advocates for place-appropriate economic development and equal access to nature. In almost every city open space is disproportionately available to wealthier neighborhoods. Our recent projects for Union Point Park in Fruitvale and the Natural Park in South Central Los Angeles only came to fruition after embarrassing authorities with maps clearly showing a pattern of discrimination against the poor in providing parkland in Oakland and Los Angeles respectively. Such maps of environmental injustices are a powerful tool for some designers.

Participation, Empowerment, and Deep Democracy

Other Catalyst Designers focus on participation, empowerment of the less powerful, and deep democracy. Our college is one of the few professional design schools to systematically teach participatory design. Marcia McNally has taught the course since 1988. Many of our graduates have significantly advanced democratic design. Through proactive practice, a term coined by Mark Francis, their design process consciously attends not just to building the environment but also to cultivating civic skills. The work of CED graduate Scott McCreary demonstrates how the most contentious land use and environmental issues can be resolved more intelligently when all powers share equal authority and knowledge. Techniques like joint fact finding and the single text distinguish his work. Daniel Iacofano attends more directly to the involvement of diverse groups often excluded from democratic decision making; he has created new participatory methods that allow disenfranchised publics their own voices. His inventions include phenomenological techniques like scored walking tours, city views, and stewardship workdays. In Tokyo, Asanoumi Yoshihara builds a sense of community with techniques like drawing on his feet, neighborhood treasure hunts and mockups that have led to extraordinary new stream ecologies and civic places; all of these designers demonstrate that good cities today depend upon an empowered, well educated, and responsible citizenry willing and able to practice direct democracy and complex stewardship. The group we founded in our college in 1998, Democratic Designers in the Pacific Rim, has become a primary mechanism for younger, creative practitioners throughout the region to advance empowering planning processes of city making.

Cultural and Biological Diversity

Many catalysts design primarily to maintain diversity in the face of global homogenization. Through what is labeled as “post modern resistance”, these designers create alternative economies and habitation that enhance cultural and biological diversity. Our work with John Liu and Chu Joe Hsia at National Taiwan University illustrates how the two are intertwined. For several years we have worked collaboratively to save the black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor) from extinction. It is the rarest spoonbill bird in the world and on the brink of extinction, largely because of loss of wetland habitat throughout coastal Asia from Russia, China and Korea to Taiwan and the Philippines. The single most important winter habitat at the Tsen wen Estuary and Chigu Lagoon in Tainan County, Taiwan is comprised of natural waterways, aquaculture ponds, and abandoned government-owned salt lands. This habitat was originally scheduled as the location for one of the largest petrochemical and industrial complexes in the world, the Binnan project. In spite of government scientist disclaimers, the project would have led to the extinction of the spoonbill. After extensive research, we founded a non-governmental organization, SAVE International, to fight the Binnan project, preserve spoonbill habitat, and develop an alternative plan with local people.

Ignored in the earlier process were important local facts. Chigu Lagoon and Coastal Tainan County directly supports 16,000 jobs in oystering and fishing, and a total of 24,000 jobs in fishing-related industries. This centuries-old fishing culture was also threatened with extinction if Binnan were built, but local fisherman felt powerless. To work with them we designed upside down with few words. They explained to us the local ecosystems upon which they depended. We made maps using John Radke’s latest GIS technology combining native wisdom with professional knowledge of conservation biology. We integrated highly specialized science with local common sense. Government scientists claimed spoonbills occupied only a small area. Fishermen thought the birds foraged over a much larger area in their ponds at night.   Malcolm Coulter, the IUCN co-chair of the specialist group on storks, ibis and spoonbills, put the conflicting pieces together. Spoonbills, he concluded, roost during the day when the government scientists studied them (apparently government scientists don’t work much at night), but forage at dawn, dusk and night as far as 30 kilometers from the roosting site.

The government had ignored the fact that spoonbills had to eat as well as sleep. They were providing a bed with no breakfast. No one can believe Chinese scientists would forget eating. This simple piece of interconnected thinking changed everything. It detonated the basis of the government’s environmental impact assessment that Binnan would have no impact on the spoonbill. The oversight (or lie) outraged over one hundred international groups who demanded Binnan be stopped. The local fishermen were increasingly emboldened partly by our international support but more by the realization that their local wisdom of ecosystems and bird behavior was fundamental to the scientific knowledge that would underlie any future plan for their area.

A power map we constructed during a strategy session in Taipei revealed points where we should concentrate our efforts. Power maps are essential fare for change agents. Equally important in making a plan that challenged dominant powers was the geometries of local people’s daily patterns and projected patterns of new economies. Over the last seven years, the Building and Planning Institute at NTU has mapped the existing and projected spatial ecologies of local people. We have mapped the spatial requirements of spoonbills and projected their habitat expansion. We have concluded, for example, that spoonbills will only roost in shallow open waters with an unobstructed view of approximately 500 meters in every direction. Where there exists such kilometer-square open waters, near estuaries, spoonbills can safely roost, sleeping during the day undisturbed by domestic and natural predators. But they only roost there if adequate aquaculture is in close proximity because they forage primarily in adjacent fish ponds, usually within nine kilometers and only when ponds have been emptied of marketable fish and water levels remain at five to 20 centimeters. With such precise attention to spatial geometry and proportion, spoonbills would likely make good designers.

Armed with these geometries, two years ago Shay Boutillier predicted the areas spoonbills were likely to colonize next. Her map of stepping stone habitats projected precisely the lands where spoonbills have begun roosting in large numbers. One new colony is on the site the government proposes for an international airport and free trade industrial zone.

To protect biological and cultural diversity and to implement a plan based on ecotourism, habitat preservation and green industries such as orchid and organic food products, we proposed to the local governments of three coastal counties and have since created a detailed regional plan. This was the product of joint work between National Taiwan University and our college. Although hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have contributed, Pan Pacific leaders in this effort were Jeff Hou and Wenling Tu. This resulted in a National Scenic Area being established to carry out the plan.

Most recently NTU and we have developed detailed urban design plans for several villages to enhance habitat for tourism focusing on wild bird watching and local history. These grassroots plans are at odds with standard global solutions to destroy wetlands for large scale industrial complexes and corporate destinations resorts. Our designs in Chigu are modest interventions, controlled by local people and reflective of particularities of the local place: a viewing station snuggled into a rare mangrove ecology, a community center renovated by local craftsmen with waste products from the fishing industry, and a restaurant ecology center among others. Although each project is small, it is conceived within a big vision of the regional plan that resists authorities that would eliminate biological and cultural diversity. Although our plan represents a vastly different view of the future than that pushed by the global corporate states, it is hardly radical. It is grounded in the everyday life of the local culture and carefully accommodates their desires.

Radical Sustainability

Other agents of change advocate more radical development strategies for sustainability. These visionary futures require significant alterations in lifestyleRichard Register’s plan for calls for consolidating land uses within a century converting the city into self sustaining neighborhoods, eliminating dependence on the car. Anne Riley’s vision would restructure the city and region along streams and watersheds, creating a natural framework which manages storm water ecologically, provides new habitat and recreation space ew urbanists, most notably by Peter Calthorpe, advance a more comprehensive set of strategies for the next American Metropolis hen applied rigorously, they are truly transformative. The strategies entice people to live more sustainably by providing a whole package of benefits through substitutions. They offer access to transit, more community facilities, more mixed-use walkable neighborhoods, and with more access to nature and traditional house types. In exchange, the strategies require modestly higher densities.While characterized as a form of romantic resistanceis a highly sophisticated design alternative to unsustainable suburban sprawl.

Radical sustainability relies on many of its strategies have their beginnings in Wurster Hall, where early concepts have been explored in studios and research projects. It also relies on design advocates push green innovations into the mainstream. In the process the strategies become refined and the designers more sophisticated in their advocacy. Clark Wilson’s strategies for “green streets” are gaining wide support and Anni Tilt, David Arkin, Bruce Brubaker, Larry Strain and many others are the next generation of leading voices in the green building movement which is now being formalized by LEEDS.

Radical sustainability’s success relies on confronting entrenched development patterns and centers of vast power directly, but in the public and private arena. But the power of political and economic interests should not be underestimated. When we were taking the first actions to create a containing greenbelt around Los Angeles, Marcia McNally proposed the designation of core wildlife habitats and urban wilderness recreation centers. Marcia called one such core Big Wild; it was broadly supported throughout Los Angeles, but not in the City Council. To create Big Wild required abandoning a long planned, cross mountain freeway, Reseda-to-the-Sea. Multiple studies indicated the cross mountain route would dump traffic onto an already gridlocked 405 freeway where 10,000 trip desires per rush hour overran capacity of only 7,000, and the cross mountain road would sever a critical wildlife corridor leading to local extinctions. It would not meet transportation objectives and it would do considerable ecological damage.

Why then was the cross mountain freeway strongly supported by the City Council and even Councilmen Marvin Braude an environmentalist Westsider? We found out only after legislation that we supported to terminate the proposed freeway, A.B. 1152, was being debated in the California Legislature. A state senator (who later went to jail) and had real estate partnerships with key staff and/or supporters of Braude and a lawyer for key land speculators in the area near Big Wild was married to one of Braude’s staff members. In any case, an unusually well funded lobby against A.B. 1152 was waged. Where the funds for this effort came from was impossible to determine precisely, but part of the trail led to a powerful coalition of government agents, elected officials, and real estate speculators. It is such shadow coalitions with long accepted conflicts of interest and unfathomable authority that must be confronted for radical sustainability to be advanced.

Likewise our private lives must be transformed. It is too easy to ignore our own roles in unsustainability by rightfully blaming external forces. The external and internal forces must be confronted. Agents for radical sustainability must live more sustainably ourselves. The same can be said for those who advocate justice, deep democracy and diversity.

A Few Modest Suggestions for Wurster

The problems I describe have roots in our present design education and I’d like to conclude with a few suggestions.

First, we must continuously examine the extent to which our design curriculum inculcates the idea that design is separate from politics. Segmented thinking is dangerous and a hindrance to our efficacy. There should be core courses in the politics of design that provide methods for empowerment of our students to operate in the face of power. The courses could address openly issues of the aesthetics, of a social architecture, how divergent cultures can be celebrated in design and bold collective action be garnered. The courses might examine how formal architecture and institutionalized injustices can be analysed as matters of proportion, geometry and form. It might debate the statement of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that our concern for order (social and architectural) renders justice secondary.

Second, and to further address the issue of segmented thinking, specialization can never be an excuse for ignorance. With all our specialization, I would plea for more integration and complex systemic thinking with competing world views. I think the best way to do this is with joint, simultaneous degrees. While our college promotes joint degrees and graduates more students with joint degrees than any other in the country, more students should be encouraged to take advantage of this within our college and around campus. It should be made even easier, not onerous.

Third, we need to teach skills of politically intervening design. Every student should know how to draw on their feet, not just in private. Everyone should be able to design upside down, even planners. Everyone should know how to make justice maps, power maps, and to map social ecologies. Everyone should know how to employ phenomenological techniques to capture cultural inspiration about place. These skills should be practiced in service learning studios.

Fourth and finally we should cultivate optimism not cynicism. Cynicism allows designers to retreat into the seemingly safe world of elitism that directly serves the authorities that would stifle true self expression. Optimism coupled with complex integrated thinking, political skill and design ability allows us to be effective design activists; and then to know whom our design serves.