The Multiplicities of Urban Design

I would like to begin with a couple of assertions. First, that urban design is a visual art, worthy of consideration as such with other arts: painting, sculpture, architecture. Accepting urban design as a visual art means that one also privileges urban design’s esthetic content as at least equal or superior to its other attributes, of which there are many. Second, I assert that urban design is also a public art, even a social art; an art that not only engages the public, in the manner of variably public art like sculpture or painting, but that is also inhabited by the public, a three-dimensional art within which the public can live, work, and carry out other functions of life. Urban design can even be manufactured collectively by the public, for urban design is an annotatable art, always subject to revisions, additions, reconsiderations.

As a visual art, urban design is unusual in many respects, one of which is its multiscalar quality. While the relative scalar range of some visual arts is quite broad- sculpture, for example, may range from the size of a statue to that of a piece of landscape, as in, say, Richard Serra’s Sea Level, in Flevoland, Netherlands- that of urban design is arguably greater. Certainly the absolute scalar range of urban design is by far the broadest of any art. Seaside, Florida, is unarguably a work of urban design, and it is quite large, but there are other visual arts that attain an equally large scale: a designed park, for example, or perhaps a very large work of land art like Lightning Field. But what other visual art can attain the scale of Paris’s Grande Axe, or the London Greenbelt? At the largest scales, all other visual arts fall away, and only urban design persists.

Urban design’s upper and lower scalar limits are debatable, because at both of these scalar limits urban design slides imperceptibly into other visual arts, or into other acts of human construction that are not considered to be arts. How small-scale can urban design be before it becomes merely a work of architecture, landscape architecture, or another visual art? Is a playground, however well-designed, urban design? What about a centrally-located public building? At its upper end, the boundaries of urban design are equally hard to define. How large can urban design be before it is merely a work of infrastructure or land surveying, designed and constructed by human hands, but with perhaps little esthetic intent? Is the national survey grid of the United States a work of urban design? Or for that matter the 1811 Commissioner’s Grid of Manhattan?

However one chooses to define urban design, or to categorize what is or is not a work of urban design, it is an undeniable fact that there are some very small-scaled human constructions that constitute works of urban design. Paley Park in Manhattan is a fair example. More than simply a park, Paley Park was noted by no less an urban observer than William H. Whyte as being a space where “it is hard to tell where [the street] ends and [the park] begins… the sight of the park, the knowledge that it is there, becomes part of the image we have of a much wider area.”1 Though it is a privately owned public space, Paley Park is urban design at the scale of a single rowhouse. So, too, there are very large built works whose esthetic content or degree of intentionality are such that they are unarguably urban design: Vienna’s Ringstrasse, perhaps, or the historic center of St. Petersburg, or even the entire city of Magnitogorsk, built with some rapidity by Stalin’s regime during the 1930s.

Just as urban design is neither large nor small, but instead a visual art that ranges widely across scales, so too urban design is neither public nor private, but always some combination of both. Perhaps the most ‘public’ of all urban design schemes are those constructed in places where the concept of ‘private’, in its multiple forms, had been abolished or was forbidden to exist. In this sense Soviet urban design schemes were entirely ‘public’: the state designed, constructed, and owned land and structures; private individuals were permitted to occupy apartments, but even there the state’s powers were significant. So a completely public urban design cannot be said to exist; there will always be private elements existing within it, private property, or perhaps just the privacy of one’s conscience. By the same token, it is hard to imagine a work of urban design that is entirely private: a military base, for example, may be closed to the public, but these properties are nevertheless technically public property, and open to a selective public as well. A private individual might own a very large piece of property, such as an estate; but it would be difficult to ever consider an estate, no matter how designed it was, as a work of urban design.

How one perceives changes occurring in urban design today may depend only on one’s sense of esthetics: a feeling that urban design is becoming more avant-garde, more “critical”, or perhaps more conservative. Or one’s perceptions of change in urban design may depend on one’s sense of changes in political economy or sociology: a sense of the decline of the state, or of the relative ascendance of private or nonstate actors. Just as these prior points are arguable, so too would be any argument as to whether urban design is getting “smaller”, “bigger”, “more public”, or “more private”. But one can generate a couple of hypotheses based on one’s perceptions of these prior points. If, for example, the power of the state is diminishing, then one would expect urban design to be getting smaller; the largest urban design schemes in my perception are those generated by a powerful state, such as the 1946 New Towns Act and the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act in the United Kingdom, which generated the London Greenbelt and the New Towns, or the city planning schemes of the Soviet Union. Private actors may be growing more powerful, but it seems difficult to imagine large-scale shaping of urban areas through urban design without the participation of the state, however reduced its power.

Perhaps, if cities are increasingly governed by private action, certain scales of urban design will disappear. The largest scales of urban design, for example, have always been rare in the United States, where local governments generally permit private actors a strong hand in shaping developments. The largest design projects in the United States are huge residential tracts like Levittown, or perhaps military bases. On the other hand, smaller-scale, mostly private developments that mimic many aspects of urban design seem to be increasing, perhaps due to increased capability on the part of private actors. Las Vegas’s City Center, a privately-owned shopping-center, hotel and casino complex, is not the first development of its kind, but its pretensions to urbanity are substantial, not least of all its name.

Ultimately, however, I am not one of those who feels that urban design, as an art, stands at the edge of drastic changes. Esthetics of urban design will continue to evolve and change in unpredictable ways; such is the nature of art. Technologies that permit the creation and construction of urban design will also change, and these will continue to intermingle with esthetics in complex and equally unpredictable ways, as occurred during the twentieth century. But I do not believe that human nature is on the edge of fundamental change. For several thousand years people have constructed cities, and designed them with variable levels of skill; this will no doubt continue to be the case barring drastic changes to the human condition. Cities are fundamentally public, and so, too, urban design will continue to be, whatever powers private actors may assume. Similarly, urban design’s multiscalarity will remain one of its fundamental attributes. Urban design’s ability to span the realms of large/small and public/private will continue to be among the qualities that help to distinguish it from the other visual arts.

  1. William H. Whyte, City: Rediscovering the Center, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, p. 130.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.
About the Author
Brent Ryan is an associate professor of urban design and public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.