Design for Urban Places

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.

Simulating Urban Place: The Importance of Experience

The College of Environmental Design was founded in the belief that the design of buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes and regions should be genuinely concerned with the conditions of all humans and be relatively free from doctrine of any persuasion.

It was possible for such a humanistic tradition to emerge because those who founded the college held a commitment to an integrated view of education and had a high tolerance for each other’s approaches. With the exception of Catherine Bauer, the founding members were raised locally and rooted in the Bay Area experience: William Wurster had his roots in Stockton , T. J. Kent and Fran Violich grew up in San Francisco, Vernon DeMars in Oakland and Garrett Eckbo in Alameda; after an exposure to East Coast schools all embraced modern architecture’s social agenda. They practiced regionally; several of them worked prominently in the field of low-income housing, others, as founders of Telesis in 1939 and motivated by an appreciation for the Bay Area’s exceptional beauty, reacted against the mindless urban development that accelerated in the decades after WWII. As mentors they pointed out that no matter the size of an individual designer’s contribution, it was possible to act intelligently with an eye on the larger environmental, social and political context.

In the 1960s, the college attracted a large number of faculty members from further afield, especially in the field of urban planning and design. Donald Appleyard, who came from MIT together with Roger Montgomery, who came from Washington University in Saint Louis, both started to offer an interdisciplinary urban design curriculum to graduate students from all three departments.

Urban design as a tie between the three departments became the college’s hallmark and over the last four decades a group of urban designers with roots in design practice shared an interest in research and teaching that led to a normative stance, emphasizing more the prescriptive, “what should be,” and less the descriptive, reflective mode, emphasizing the “what is.” The colleagues I am thinking of include Don Logan, Dan Solomon, Christopher Alexander, Clare Cooper Marcus, and Sam Davis, who taught at Berkeley when I joined in 1976. Allan Jacobs came to Berkeley at about the same time. During Richard Bender’s time as CED Dean, Donlyn Lyndon, Randy Hester, Michael Southworth, Elizabeth Deakin and Linda Jewell joined; Nezar Alsayyad came to the faculty after he completed his PhD with Spiro Kostov; René Davids and Renée Chow, Louise Mozingo and Walter Hood joined during Roger Montgomery’s tenure as Dean. Mark Anderson, Elizabeth MacDonald, Nicholas de Monchaux, Paz Gutierez, Karl Kuhlmann and Ron Rael are the most recent members of the faculty with a dedication to urban design.

A comparison of urban vitality in Los Angeles, Shanghai and Mumbai
Figure 1 Enlarge [+]Cities in the Laboratory, a conceptual view: A comparison of urban vitality in Los Angeles, Shanghai and Mumbai, measured here per unit of surface area, Venice Biennale, 2006.

Academic groups need jolters. Peter Hall jolted the group saying that increasingly the form of urban regions would need to be studied; Manuel Castells pointed the group towards a major shift in how society uses space. The information age had changed how people interact socially at all levels. Two decades earlier Mel Webber jolted the members of the group with his thesis that local place was growing less important as society was becoming more and more placeless. The polemics of the discussion made students in the simulation laboratory work on a film Webberville versus Applelandia. In one community, the curtains are drawn to keep out the glare as residents communicate with their peers in faraway places; in the other community, the residents erect barricades in the streets to protect against traffic, environmental degradation and for greater social justice.

Not unique to Berkeley, there still exists a healthy tension between those who view material space relative to socioeconomic dimensions and those who view the experience of place as an inspiration for design. It is therefore important to reflect on the power of direct experience, and the power of abstractions as something that education can bridge. If more bridges between the two modes of thinking, planning and design can be made, the college can confidently face the next 50 years.

The proposed Citti di Porta Nova, Milan
Figure 2 Enlarge [+]Cities in the Laboratory, a perceptual view: The proposed Citti di Porta Nova, Milan. (Bosselmann/Urban Simulation Laboratory, Polimi).

The Environmental Simulation Laboratory, founded in 1972 by Appleyard, provides such a bridge. Ahead of its time, it was built on the premise that it is possible to bring parts of the city into a laboratory in order to experiment with changes to urban form. Throughout history and across disciplines simulations have been used to forecast conditions that might become reality. The applications of simulations are broad and have grown in engineering, design and planning as well as navigational training, medicine and education. Fundamentally, two types of simulations are possible: existing and future urban conditions can be explained as concepts or as experiences. When computational techniques became available in the 1970s, conceptual simulations received a major boost. A decade later, with the advent of digital image processing, the sensory or perceptional forms of simulations advanced. By now, animations, virtual walks or drives through photorealistic settings have become commonplace. But with such advancements it is important to remember that simulations remain abstractions of reality. What is selected from reality, and what is left out, can significantly influence the outcome of simulations, thus the future form of cities.

Milan skyline
Figure 3 Enlarge [+]View from the roof of the Duomo in Milan towards the Alps. The cupola of the Galleria is in the front to the left.
Milan skyline
Figure 4 Enlarge [+]Understanding changes to Milan’s traditionally horizontal skyline. (Bosselmann/Urban Simulation Laboratory, Polimi).

Will the simulated world behave in very much the same manner as the real world? The answer to this question is important for urban designers, who use simulations to explore the implications of policy on the form of cities. If response equivalence between simulated and real world experiences cannot be guaranteed, simulations would have no credibility, could be misleading and should not be used in decision making processes. Knowledge about response equivalence falls into the realm of psychology. Kenneth Craik, one of the pioneers in the field of environmental psychology, collaborated with Appleyard in the early years to measure people’s responses to simulated scenes and compare them to responses after an experience of the real world. Answers to the equivalence question involved a large scale validation project sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Residents and nonresidents were randomly selected to tour a suburban environment complete with shopping centers and office parks, followed by the screening of a virtual drive through the same area. Some subjects saw one and not the other, some saw both in the sequence described or vice versa. The experiment concluded that simulations can be surrogates of a real world experience. This meant, ideally, that the simulations should not be presented in static form, but as dynamic animations, produced in a manner that comes close to human experience, moving through space and time. The experiment also acknowledged that subjects who were unfamiliar with the setting reported close to equivalent experiences after the real world tour and after watching a tour of a virtual, simulated world, or vice versa. But for subjects familiar with the real setting, the equivalence of the two experiences was not as strong. For them the real world setting had social meaning that could not readily be simulated. Thus the validation experiment touched upon findings made about the same time, first in geography and later in the field of psychology, claiming that place in cities, neighborhoods and landscapes takes on meaning based upon people’s memory, attachment and dependencies.

Figure 5 Enlarge [+]Left: Judging the correct size of buildings: to see the tower in true dimensions the human eyes create nine distinct perspectives (Bosselmann/Urban Simulation Laboratory, Polimi); Right: Alternatively, additional references are needed to judge the dimensions of the tower. (Bosselmann/Urban Simulation Laboratory, Polimi).
3D GIS model
Figure 6 Enlarge [+]The 3D GIS model that made the Milan simulations possible. (Bosselmann/Urban Simulation Laboratory, Polimi).

The validation project also confirmed a number of earlier theories, first J.J. Gibson’s ecological theory that reminds us of perception’s dynamic process, which operates under constantly changing conditions and frequently in motion over time. As well as Egon Brunswik’s probabilistic theory: The observer builds up a repertoire of probabilities that provides likely conclusions by combining trustworthy clues to give an educated guess about the true nature of a situation or place.

Admittedly, for the everyday user of simulations, perceptional theories would be of limited use, if it were not for the fact that simulations are produced in a highly politicized milieu. Change in cities will always be associated with controversy. Especially when large projects are considered, proponents and opponents rival for public attention, appeal to decision makers and will treat information about change selectively, emphasizing its benefits or detriments depending on who is preparing the case. For an outsider, the credibility gap appears obvious and the difference in the portrayal of the real and the imagined can at times be comical, but for the actors involved the matter is deadly serious, because much can be at stake. Therefore, anybody interested in reducing the credibility gap for the benefit of a more open debate would call for a special commitment among those who produce simulations. Simulations should be representative of the changes that a new project will impose on the conditions that exist and on possible future conditions — ideally, they should consider cumulative change — without exaggerating or diminishing the impacts of change. The modeling should be open to accuracy tests. Realistically, such work could not be expected from proponents or from opponents, but could only be performed by individuals outside the controversy, for example, at research universities.

San Francisco skyline showing potential development
Figure 7 Enlarge [+]San Francisco skyline (Bosselmann/Urban Explorer) with 2004/5 entitlements and potential development under current planning controls; existing skyline, 2008, plus the proposed Transit Tower (Bosselmann/Yon Te Kim).

Modeled after the Berkeley lab, several such laboratories have emerged. For example, in the 1990s the Berkeley laboratory became the model for laboratories at Keio and at Waseda Universities in Tokyo. Here the rationale was developed for exemption from national planning law and introduction of special area planning controls for several Tokyo neighborhoods, including the famous Ginza district; earlier in the 1980s, a new laboratory in New York shaped regulations for Times Square, Television City, the Upper East Side and for West Way. The latest of this type of simulation laboratories was built in 2007 at the Milan Polytechnic with the purpose of examining the insertion of large scale projects into the still largely horizontal cityscape. In these laboratories, simulations are made to support the process of reasoning; modeling turns an abstract idea and transforms it towards the realm of the concrete. Not yet reality, but through simulations urban form and the associated conditions become more understandable. Models allow for greater clarity, and simulations are useful for explaining urban conditions to those who may not otherwise understand the implications of decision-making, such as politicians, community representatives, and the news media — thus the public at large. Simulations alone cannot claim to deliver judgment about good performance, fit or compatibility; the evaluators will make such judgments, but simulations make possible an open, public discussion among evaluators about the magnitude, pace and nature of change, its perceived degree of faithfulness to a recognized tradition — authenticity — or, a conscious break with tradition — a new beginning.

New York City, Times Square, 1985
Figure 8 Enlarge [+]New York City, Times Square, 1985: Simulating allowable building heights and signage control.

With the advent of Geographic Information Systems, perceptual simulation can be combined with spatially referenced data. For example, the attempt by the San Francisco business community to find sufficient land to accommodate 10 million square feet of additional office space is such an abstraction. The Berkeley Simulation Laboratory has a 30-year tradition to show whether and how that much floor space will fit into what is already there. Many contemporary examples for simulation applications come to mind. In California, as population grows, we need to simulate a type of community that is designed to reduce green house gasses consistent with Senate Bill 375.

San Francisco Bay Area, the Randstad in Holland, Hong Kong, and Milan
Figure 9 Clockwise from top left: Simulating population density: four metropolitan areas with seven million inhabitants, San Francisco Bay Area, the Randstad in Holland, Hong Kong, and Milan.

Simulation is a bridge between concept and experience. At the CED we are in the process of opening a new bridge to visualize spatial data at the metropolitan scale. We are calling this new type of laboratory a Global Metropolitan Observatory. It originated out of a strategic initiative proposed to the Chancellor when the faculty were asked to brainstorm about the contribution Berkeley could make to solving the most urgent problems of the new millennium. Our response was a study center with the focus on sustainable metropolitan form. The new observatory will continue Berkeley’s tradition. It speaks to the strength of an educational tradition, when it is carried on by others, when it evolves and when it resonates in professional cultures different from those places where it originated.

The Ginza District under examination at the Tokyo Simulation Laboratory
Figure 10 Enlarge [+]The Ginza District under examination at the Tokyo Simulation Laboratory (Academy Hills, Roppongi).

Shaping the Public Realm: CED Urban Design Studio Studies Pittsburg’s Railroad Avenue Corridor

How could an urban arterial become a great public space? In the Fall of 2007 graduate students in Landscape Architecture and City Planning explored urban design possibilities for the Railroad Avenue Corridor in Pittsburg, under the guidance of Professors Michael Southworth and Donlyn Lyndon.

A major spine, Railroad Avenue connects the historic waterfront and town center with the Civic Center, several schools, and a proposed transit village and BART extension. The project area contains a mixture of public parks, residential neighborhoods, shopping areas, and small industrial buildings; two railroads and a highway cross it.

The studio, which was funded by the City of Pittsburg, collaborated with the AIA East Bay Chapter. The studio covered the same location in the city as the Charrette undertaken by the AIA East Bay. Under the leadership of Steve Winkel, Anko Chen, Ron Bishop and Sidney Sweeney, and in concert with Marc Grisham, the Pittsburg City Manager, the AIA East Bay sponsored the Charrette as part of “AIA150,” a year-long national American Institute of Architects program celebrating 150 years of architects working together by giving information and ideas back to communities.

Michael Southworth Pittsburg's Railroad Avenue Corridor
Railroad Avenue intersection with DeAnza Trail, Boulevard plan for Railroad Avenue, Charrette sketch for Highway 4 Gateway Enlarge [+]

The Studio

Each year the interdisciplinary studio taught by Professor Southworth focuses on the public realm of cities and opportunities for creating more humane and delightful public places in both existing urban centers and in areas of new growth. Major studio objectives include:

  • To develop skills in analyzing, designing, and communicating urban design problems.
  • To involve the class in a real world problem, with real clients, preferably with a public client such as a city.
  • To work on urban design problems at multiple scales, from small elements like parks or plazas and building that contribute to the public realm, to medium scale such as marketplaces or cultural centers, to larger scale such as street grids and new districts.
  • To work as an interdisciplinary team including landscape architects, planners, and architects.
  • To expose students to the practice of urban design and projects for the public realm through visiting professionals, case studies, and field trips to projects.
Michael Southworth Pittsburg's Railroad Avenue Corridor
Wind turbines for energy and identity Enlarge [+]

The Railroad Avenue Corridor, Connecting Mines to Harbor

Beginning in the 1850s the Black Diamond Railroad, which ran north from the Black Diamond coal mines in the hills down to the waterfront, established the structure for the corridor. Since it was an industrial strip, town development avoided it, resulting in a pattern that is still evident today with few public activities fronting along the corridor and little provision for pedestrian activity. However, Railroad Avenue is the major transportation spine in the city and is one of the few streets that connect the hills with Old Town and the water. Although the city began as a tight grid pattern, as it grew to the South, superblocks and fragmented street patterns became the norm. Neighborhoods are rather detached from it and there are several barriers to North/South movement. Walking and bicycling are compromised in many areas. Built form is somewhat incoherent, with disparate scales, gaps, and much underutilized space. Civic institutions such as the City Hall and High School are not readily visible from Railroad Avenue and the major entrance to the city from Highway 4 is weak, giving no sense of arrival or orientation. Overall, it lacks cohesiveness, vitality, and identity.

Michael Southworth Pittsburg's Railroad Avenue Corridor
Left: Light rail at DeAnza Trail greenway; Right: Entrance from Highway Enlarge [+]

The Process

Early in the semester the class did a sketch problem, Looking at Urban Public Spaces. The purpose was to discover and begin to imagine places along the Railroad Avenue Corridor that could become part of a spirited public realm, places that could become seeds for change in the new way Pittsburg is lived and conceived. The class took a field trip to study public space along the Railroad Avenue Corridor and to document its form and use, critically evaluate it as an urban space and imagine changes.

An in-depth field reconnaissance and analysis during September studied livability and public space along the Corridor and laid the groundwork for the design phase of the project and for the AIA East Bay Charrette. The class worked as a team to analyze Visual Form, Public Space, Waste Spaces, Natural Factors, Access, History and Culture, Activity Patterns, and Socio-economic Environment in the study area. In late October 2007 students and faculty participated in and helped facilitate the design Charrette in Pittsburg, which was attended by citizens, city staff, and members of the Planning Commission, and many design professionals.

Subsequently the class developed design possibilities for the Railroad Avenue Corridor and presented their work to City staff and to interested Charrette participants throughout the semester. Designs explored potentials for Railroad Avenue as a major corridor for civic life and gateway to the city. Ideas included

  • Connecting with and making visible Pittsburg’s history such as the Black Diamond Railroad and the 18th century DeAnza Trail
  • Strengthening views to the hills, industrial forms, and windmills and creating continuous greenways through the city
  • Creating a new gateway to the city at Highway 4 and Railroad Avenue
  • Expanding and making visible the Civic Center to include a teen center, cultural/arts center, library, and community recreation center, closely adjoined by housing
  • Providing varied and affordable infill housing, especially for families, and an exploration of more compact living patterns and housing types
  • Providing new transport connections with Old Town connecting the hills with the waterfront and including attractive and safe walking and biking paths throughout the corridor
  • Creating a Transit Village and eBART station at the intersection of Railroad Avenue and Highway 4

The class presented its final work to the very enthusiastic City Council, Planning Commission, and interested city officials, staff, and residents in February 2008. Steve Winkel summarized the results of the Charrette.

The Future

The studio work reveals Pittsburg’s great potential for creating fine places to live, with a landscape and community structure that enhance the lives of all who live there and come to live there. This can be achieved in a way that draws strength from the existing character of the place and makes use of resources in a way that is responsible, enjoyable and sustainable.

Professor Lyndon stresses that three things are necessary to bear in mind in reaching for this future:

Think always to the larger landscape, the fall of the land towards the water; the presence and care of vegetation, the sustainable use of natural resources and an understanding of the history of the place.

Look always for investments that give benefits in many ways, that nurture the place as well as meet specific needs; where each project can join with others in creating a public realm that brings people together and makes judicious use of resources.

Railroad Avenue can become a grand passage through the city, one that draws together landscape, civic investment, existing neighborhoods and attractive walkable developments into a coherent, livable place, one that will bring pleasure and pride to its citizens.

These altogether achievable goals will require steady, careful guidance from the City Council, the City Manager and staff, and the understanding and dedication of commissioners, citizens, merchants and developers.

Michael Southworth Pittsburg's Railroad Avenue Corridor
Left (top down): DeAnza Trail concept Civic Center concept; Entrance at Energy Museum and BART station; Top right: Transit Village concept Enlarge [+]
Michael Southworth Pittsburg's Railroad Avenue Corridor
Transit Village plan Enlarge [+]


Jennifer Beckman, Jessica Coleman, Holly Dabral, Mike Ernst, Peter Frankel, Vinita Huang, Kristen Maravilla, Rebecca Sanders, Hagu Solomon