Fitting People to Place: Urban Design, Simplified

Event: Urban Design for an Urban Century: Book Signing, Reception, and Authors Presentation
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.03.09
Speakers: Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, & David Dixon, FAIA — authors, Urban Design for an Urban Century (Wiley, 2009)
Sponsors: RKT&B


Urban design is about “fitting people to place,” stated David Dixon, FAIA, arguing against the preconception that urban design is much more complex, depending on economy, social values, and environmental forces. Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People (Wiley, 2009), by Dixon, Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, and the late Oliver Gillham, AIA, tackles urban design concepts in an easy-to-digest format, beneficial to students and experienced practitioners alike.

Just as peoples’ lives constantly change, the space-making strategies in which they live must alter accordingly, Dixon explained. “You can’t change pedestrian paths and be successful,” Brown added. The authors referred to examples throughout history, from some of the earliest cities including Babylon, Miletus, and Rome, where the basic tenants of urban design were established. Grids were defined to effectively move troops; public squares were created to honor the wealthy; and cities were compact to protect inhabitants. When industrialization offered more mobilization, cities began to decentralize. The Modern movement attempted to use art as a generator for urban form, which Dixon believes was not very successful (think of Le Corbusier’s utopian visions).

Fortunately, Dixon and Brown believe, urbanism is back in vogue: people are rediscovering cities with a renewed appreciation for urban life. Especially in the current economy, sprawl is simply too expensive. We are, therefore, beginning to feel a responsibility to live more sustainably, choosing denser housing options. Downtowns are being repopulated, and cities are considered healthier places to live than the suburban, auto-dependent alternative.

To support their case, Dixon and Brown cite examples of urban design-done-right: recent winners of AIA Institute Honor Awards for Regional and Urban Design. Through these case studies, the authors examine effective approaches to urban design. For example, the redevelopment of Portland’s Pearl district, a former rail yard community that now claims to be Portland’s “number one walkable community,” has encouraged new families to stay rather than flee to the suburbs. Similarly, the development for Harmonie Park in Detroit attracted life back to the historic area by creating a mix of shops, restaurants, and loft apartments. Millennium Park in Chicago, the world’s “largest green roof,” recently achieved international fame as it served as backdrop for President Obama’s historic victory.

Brown explained that the book is a “reflection of the spirit of what its authors do,” which is much more than just design: they spend much of their time advocating the principles of good urban design while trying to resolve the divergent voices often involved in the planning process. The authors’ best advice for urban designers? To “make places people love instead of iconic sculpture.”