Group Relations and Urban Design

From the days of Pope Sixtus V and Baron von Haussmann to its more contemporary manifestations, urban design has served elite urban groups, often perpetuating urban inequalities and divisions of wealthy/poor, private/public, formal/informal. Indeed, the vast majority of urban design praxis is concentrated in select prime spaces in the city—civic centers, corporate commercial districts, convention centers, plazas, and grand edifices of art and entertainment. Cities have employed urban design strategies to create city brands, woo the corporate world and its investments in “rejuvenated” downtowns, and attract tourists and conventioneers to the “buzz” spaces of high culture (Loukaitou-Sideris and Banerjee 1998; Judd and Fainstein 1999). But the neglect of ordinary and residual spaces of everyday life – the streets and sidewalks, alleyways, bus stops, transit terminals, parking lots, or pocket parks -- has rendered such urban design strategies irrelevant for a large part of the urban public. Even worse, urban design strategies have been employed to exclude certain groups by fortressing and privatizing, hardening the edges between the spaces of formality and informality, and erecting walls, fences, and gates to separate public and private edifices (Loukaitou-Sideris and Banerjee 1998).

A number of scholars have critiqued the use of urban planning and urban design plans and market-driven strategies to advance the “entrepreneurial city” and criticized their tendency to privilege flagship property regeneration projects and iconic buildings (Hall and Hubbard 1998). They have questioned their capacity to pursue democratic design standards that are free of vested interests and lamented the disconnection between the field of urban design and the broader processes and social forces that should inform it (Cuthbert 2006; 2011; Madanipour 2007).

Indeed, in a recent examination of third-generation urban design plans (issued after 1990) in 21 large US and Canadian cities (population over 500,000), we found that a most glaring omission of these plans was their lack of attention to issues of equity (Linovski and Loukaitou-Sideris 2013). Proposed actions that would result in significant impacts for certain groups, such as the conversion of industrial buildings and the “branding” and resulting gentrification of neighborhoods, were treated uncritically. These contemporary plans are dominated by primarily aesthetic concerns, and make little or no reference to socio-cultural goals such as providing spaces for different socio-demographic groups or more affordable housing. Disappointingly, these plans give even less emphasis to the economic development impacts of urban design actions than the urban design plans of previous generations (those issued in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s).

Another glaring omission of the urban design plans examined, and one that is the critical focus of the book, The Informal American City, is their complete neglect of the unprecedented growth of informal or ‘insurgent’ urban landscapes at street corners, swap meets, skid row areas, parking lots, driveways, sweat shops, colonias, and migrant labor camps (Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris 2014). These common landscapes of informality, traditionally inhabited by the poor, remain contested and are often described in negative terms by planning and design authorities that wish to eliminate, control, regulate or transform them. The informal city and its neighborhoods have failed to attract the attention and skills of urban designers. But failure to accommodate the spatial needs of informality can lead to conflict—when one group occupies the space of another—or to unsafe, hazardous, and marginalized environments.

A third oversight of contemporary urban design plans is their failure to conceptualize who “the public” is and find ways to respond to diverse and often conflicting needs of different social groups. Most often, the concept of an “average user” is employed, local, cultural, or socio-demographic idiosyncrasies are ignored, while Eurocentric and “neo-traditional” notions of aesthetics are promoted. Inspiration is said to be sought in universalist or “timeless ways” of city building.

Such persisting omissions and oversights have prompted urban critics such as Michael Sorkin (2009) to proclaim the “end of urban design” because of its inability to address important functional and human needs of cities and their citizens. Of course, the production of the built environment is nested in and is inseparable from larger social, economic, and political processes. But as the urban design profession seems to be flourishing (witness the many new degree programs on urban design in the Anglo-Saxon world and the newly created urban design departments in many U.S. cities) (Palazzo 2011), it behooves us to explore if and how urban designers can acquire a deeper understanding of the larger socio-economic processes impacting urban form and different groups in the city, and more specifically, how particular design strategies and outcomes can mitigate certain material conditions.

As we unpack and delineate the various “group relations in urban design,” the following broad questions should be addressed in the context of urban design policy, professional practice, research, and pedagogy:How can urban designers use “culture” (broadly construed) as a determinant of design action to better understand but also help accommodate different and at times conflicting needs of a diverse urban public? Can urban design facilitate the co-habitation of different social and ethnic groups by finding ways to better integrate non-traditional housing types, higher densities, and diverse land uses in cities?

How can the scope of urban design expand to include the ordinary and residual spaces of everyday life, with the goal of making them more comfortable, livable, or humane? Can urban designers go beyond their focus on and preoccupation with aesthetics to also help uncover the invisible, accommodate the informal or unconventional, and blur or soften the boundaries between different groups?

How can urban designers make changes in the conventional ways in which cities are planned to better understand and respond to urban informality and its spatial settings? How can they better contextualize marginality and emplace informality before deciding on a design, action, or policy?

How can design action lessen conflict among groups and encourage more inclusive rather than exclusive, overlapping rather than segregated, interlinked rather than disconnected landscapes? Conflict is frequently generated by the lack of appropriate or available space that forces some groups to occupy territory used by others. Can urban design strategies promote rather than preclude human interaction and propinquity by emphasizing and reinforcing the bonds of public space to the rest of the urban structure and creating a supportive public infrastructure for different groups?

This is of course a tall order for urban design but I hope that these issues and questions would generate some interesting discussion and debate.

In the 1980s, economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen pioneered the capability approach, arguing that the well-being of persons should not only focus on their resources but also on the opportunities they have to carry on their lives in the way they value (Sen 1985; Robeyens 2006). Today, cities do not have adequate spatial arrangements that can help all urbanites enhance their capabilities. While the structural problems of poverty and inequality cannot be simply resolved through design, urban designers can offer creative spatial solutions that accommodate, integrate, or allow diverse groups to coexist. Planners and urban designers can work to create a more inclusive urban commons, which enhances the capabilities of its participants.


Cuthbert, A. R. (2006). The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cuthbert, A.R. (2011). Understanding Cities. London: Routledge.

Hall, T. & Hubbard, P. (eds) (1998) The Entrepreneurial City: Geographies of Politics, Regime and Representation, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Judd & S. Fainstein (Eds). The Tourist City. New Haven, NJ & London, UK: Yale University Press.

Linovski, O. and Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (2013). “Evolution of Urban Design Plans in U.S. and Canada: What Do the Plans Tell us about Urban Design Practice?” JPER, 33(1): 66-82.

Loukaitou-Sideris, A. and Banerjee, T. (1998). Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form,” Berkeley: University of California Press.

Madanipour, A. (2007). “Social Exclusion and Space.” In LeGates, R. and Stout, F. (Eds.) The City Reader, Fourth Edition, London: Routledge, 158-165.

Mukhija, Vinit and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris (2014) (Eds.). The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Palazzo, Danilo (2011). “Pedagogical Traditions.” In Banerjee, T. and Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (Eds.) Companion to Urban Design. London: Routledge.

Robeyns, Ingrid. 2006. “The Capability Approach in Practice.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 14(3): 351-376.

Sen, Amartya. (1985). Commodities and Capabilities. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Sorkin, M. (2009). “The End of Urban Design.” In Krieger, A. and Saunders, S. (Eds.) Urban Design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, pp. 155-182.

About the Author
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is associate dean of the School of Public Affairs and professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.