Designing the Transformation of the Decent City: Theory and Practice

What is urban design?

The question has been asked numerous times and many continue to wrestle with it. However, I believe that it is not a very useful question to ask. First, such a question tends to focus on a narrowly defined answer that rests on the status quo. Second, the term urban design conveys an architectural mode of thinking in which the solution is almost always three-dimensional form no matter the challenge being addressed. In this conventional understanding, there are at least nine ways of defining the field: as a morphological definition, as a default focus, as the guardian of public space, through lists of categories, as a map of bodies of knowledge, as a field of research, as different modes of practice, via models for understanding and making cities, and how-to approaches such as best practices.

Urban designers are the only practitioners trained explicitly to envision the four-dimensional future of cities, including the dimension of time. The designers’ approach – creative, integrative, interdisciplinary, and action-oriented – makes them among the most well-qualified problem-solvers in the world while tackling one of the most critical issues of the 21st century: the making and remaking of cities. The paradox is that while designers possess the capabilities of deploying creative ways of remaking cities, their often-singular obsession with form, space and aesthetics actually reduces their effectiveness. Formal obsessions and project-oriented thinking ensure that designers are at the mercy of more powerful generators of urban form. What is most often missing is a critical engagement with sets of larger urban templates and systems, including underlying political and economic power structures.

What can urbanism be?

I explore the fuller potential of urban design by rendering it problematic and by reframing it as city-design-and-building processes [with hyphens indicating a continual spectrum of ongoing interventions] and their spatial products.1 I term these sets of interrelated interventions and outcomes as urbanism, in contradistinction to the obsessively three-dimensional project-oriented baggage of urban design. We can further open up the potential of this reframed realm by posing a powerful question: What can urbanism be? Unlike “What is urban design?”, “What can urbanism be?” is future-oriented, filled with potential, and suggests radical reconsiderations and reinventions that could truly transform cities. In this context, urban transformation is not only about designing for significant spatial change; it is also about deeper structural changes that have a positive impact on the city and its inhabitants.

The potential of urbanism to be transformative emerges out of theory, practice, and the intertwined relationship between the two. The argument for theory is based on the premise that the most powerful means for the design of cities is our imagination and that ideas are powerful agents of change. How we think about thinking about cities—that is, metacognition—matters a great deal. However, in order for theory to truly matter for the practice of urbanism, it has to be interrogative rather than definitive.

Theorizing urbanism

There are three particularly promising areas of interrogative theory. One is a focus on how a city works rather than only on how a city looks. A seminal work in this area is the article “Urbanism as a Way of Life” by Louis Wirth.2 Wirth suggests that urbanism may be studied in three ways: as a physical structure with a population, technology and ecological order, as a system of social organization with a structure, series of institutions and patterns of relationships, and as a set of attitudes and ideas as well as groups of people engaged in forms of collective behavior. To be effective, urbanists have to understand and engage with all three.

Another area of theory is to examine and interact with the underlying human values that dominate the design of cities. In his book, Good City Form, Kevin Lynch offers a theory based on shared humanist values such as biological comfort, social interaction, access to resources, and sense of identity.3 He calls for a serious examination of normative values because without “some sense of better, any action is perverse. When values lie unexamined, they are dangerous.” Lynch’s humanist thinking provokes to reflect on key questions as urbanists: What do we truly cherish about our cities, what should we cherish, and why?

Both these areas of theory occur within a larger system of spatial political economy, or the decision-making power structures and their underlying values that are enormously influential in city-design-and-building processes. The most recent and cogent synthesis of this area of theory has been the work of Alexander Cuthbert, who writes that urbanists “should remain conscious of their involvement in the historically generated ideological process of reproducing urban space.”4 The core engagements of spatial political economy are about the systemic qualities of the design of cities (e.g. systemic patterns of decision-making, financing, regulations), and of related power structures. Key interrogations of this area of theory are: Who has the power to actually design cities, why, and what are the design effects of these power dynamics?

Pragmatism and urbanism

Through my years of practice, research and teaching, I have discovered an area of metacognition that can assist us to not only integrate these three areas of theory but also to articulate significant shifts in practice. The philosophical movement known as Pragmatism originated in the United States in the late 19th century and has continued to evolve and to impact law, education, and social and political theory. While there are various strands of Pragmatist thought, there are also a number of basic principles that characterize it: anti-foundationalism, social character of knowledge, contingency, experimentation, and pluralism.

Anti-foundationalism claims that ideas do not exist in perfect form; they emerge contingently and experimentally in response to the particular needs and practices of people as they live out their lives in a given place and time. For the Pragmatists, the social character of knowledge suggests that beliefs are collective products and that even supposedly solitary geniuses are thoroughly enmeshed in a set of social relations. The principle of contingency states that ideas are dependent on their human carriers and their environment and that since these ideas are responses to particular circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but their adaptability.

The essence of experimentation is the practice of questioning and testing, with the ideas that new arrangements, techniques, devices, institutions, methods, scientific or artistic endeavors and design strategies will further human flourishing. Pluralism refers to the fact that the world—including the city—is more complicated than any totalizing theory can articulate; thus, differences and otherness are to be juxtaposed in conversation, as challenging as that can be. Underlying this exploration of Pragmatism is that theory and practice are to be considered simultaneously. How we think about designing cities often determines how we act. So, we have to seriously reconsider about how we think about city-design-and-building processes.

Shifts in theory and practice

Through an examination of theory, practice, their interrelationship and outcomes, I derive three conceptual shifts and their attendant practices: beyond intentions: consequences of design; beyond practice: urbanism as creative political act; and beyond objects: city as flux. I now describe how these shifts were inspired by Pragmatism and illuminate them through investigative practices I have conducted: India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, Uptown Whittier Specific Plan in Los Angeles, and MIT Experimental Design Studio in Boston.5

Beyond intentions: Consequences of design: Charles Peirce, a co-founder of Pragmatism, argues that “in order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of that conception.”6 This refers to a method of experimental mental reflection that leads to verification and/or generation of explanatory hypotheses. The core of this method is the habit of questioning and exploring, testing answers and discoveries in relation to empirical evidence.

In the design fields, there tends to be overwhelming attention paid to intentions at the cost of truly understanding consequences, including unexpected ones. Examples of this intentional bias include the inordinate amount of attention paid to the concepts, sketches and ideas of “master urbanists” such as Le Corbusier or Rem Koolhaas, or those numerous award programs that recognize brand new projects without serious consideration of their actual performance and impact over the long term. What this conceptual shift argues for is to pay close attention to consequences of design—whether intended or unexpected, whether historic or contemporary—and to continually reintegrate those insights in our creative thinking.

A practice that investigates and illuminates this conceptual shift is the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. I was a member of the design team, lead by Joseph Stein. The premise was to design the city by redesigning institutions. Thus, what could have been a standard-issue government office building became instead an ecological campus shared by government agencies, research institutes, and non-profit organizations. Further, shared spaces and facilities such as landscaped courtyards, meeting rooms, library, parking and food services ensure social and policy interaction. The addition of exhibition spaces and cultural performances further enriches its role as a vibrant urban center where the future of cities is advocated, researched, debated and created on an ongoing basis. The design and management of institutional structures is as just important to the effectiveness of the projects as the design and management of its spaces.

Beyond practice: Urbanism as creative political act: The Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty talks about moral progress as “devising ways of diminishing human suffering and increasing human equality, increasing the ability of all human children to start life with an equal chance of happiness.”7 He goes on to argue that the path towards moral progress is a struggle filled with moral choices, which are more a matter of compromise between competing goods than a choice between absolutely right or wrong. In this context, a discussion of what to do is in fact a discussion about what is worthwhile to do, for example in urban practice.

The implications for urbanism are a shift away from narrowly-defined professional practice towards a broader and more savvy interaction with the politics of the city, which are not only the governing structures of the city but also the everyday intricacies of decision-making, resource allocations and group dynamics. One of the unique abilities of urbanists is the power of imagination enabled by their training in creative thinking and visualization skills, especially to envision radically alternative realities inspired by ideas of moral progress. The interdisciplinary nature of urbanism uniquely positions it to redesign city-design-and-building processes beyond established norms of rigid disciplinary boundaries and cutting-edge spatial configurations.

An example of a practice that investigates urbanism as this kind of creative political act is the Uptown Whittier Specific Plan in Los Angeles. I worked as the project leader with Stefanos Polyzoides and his team. We focused on two creative political acts: one was to leverage a critical component of the automobile-oriented city, parking, to instead create a more pedestrian-oriented one, and the other was to create a political constituency for democratic urbanism where there was none. We designed parking structures and management systems to address the automobile culture of southern California in strategic ways, such that people would in fact walk more, small pedestrian-oriented businesses would benefit, and revenue from parking would be used to maintain and improve public space. We designed an extremely open and transparent design process around an intensive week-long public workshop so that residents could directly influence policy decisions and design outcomes.

Beyond objects: City as flux: According to Pragmatist philosopher William James, “what really exists is not things made but things in the making . . . Reality falls in passing into conceptual analysis; it mounts in living its own undivided life – it budges and burgeons, changes and creates.”8 James argues that reality is living and growing, and that we can achieve an evolving understanding of reality as opposed to the moribund understanding often found in standard conceptual analysis. Reconceiving the city as flux is not only a deeply intellectual exercise of grasping the city as ongoing processes and changes, a stream of interactions and a flow of situated initiatives, but also a deeply practical one of engaging with this flux via practice.

In the realm of practice, a fairly common yet narrow view of urbanism is as a noun; that is, as a complete project [e.g. a series of open spaces, residential complex, or new city]. While the city may be designed, built and experienced as sets of three-dimensional objects, spaces and infrastructures, the fourth dimension of time requires that it be more appropriately conceptualized as flux; that is, constant change. A broader view of urbanism is as a verb; that is, to engage with the city as an ongoing and often unpredictable process, from conception of an initiative, to multiple alternatives and iterations, to an agreed-upon strategy, to ongoing refinement and implementation, and beyond—in a possibly endless series of actions and outcomes.

I investigated these ideas via the Experimental Design Studio at MIT by asking the question: How does one train future urbanists to design the city as flux? I developed this pedagogy based on my training and performances in comedy improvisation, which is by far the most powerful form of creative collaboration I know of. The project was to develop a design strategy for a 9-block area just south of Chinatown in Boston. The project was in fact a vehicle to experiment with comedy improvisation as a design methodology for flux. The group of students worked as one team, producing design strategies and scenarios that adapted to changing circumstances and allowed for the incorporation of new ways of thinking and new technologies in the future.

Designing urban transformation

Designing urban transformation requires these kinds of fundamental shifts towards interrogative theories and meta-theories of urbanism, as well as towards investigative forms of practice. This implies a view that is “both/and” rather than “either/or”: both theory and practice, both design and social science, both long-term understanding and short-term intervention.9 Addressing critical urban challenges and asking powerful questions such as “What can urbanism be?” best drive such an integrated approach. Thus, I argue for a teleological approach to the design of cities rather than a morphological one. In this approach, while the material city [i.e. the urban fabric] should be designed to be comfortable, convenient and beautiful, it is primarily a means for deeper structural change. For example, while more inclusive and participatory processes may yield to better design outcomes, an even more significant outcome would be the other way around: ways in which city-design-and-building processes can in fact further probe and strengthen the varied potentialities of democracy.

Urban transformation and the decent city

I conclude this paper by turning to the relationship between design, urban transformation and the decent city. First, as illustrated by the three case studies touched upon in this essay, one of the most promising aspects of the notion of the decent city is the idea of mundane urbanism. The India Habitat Centre, the Uptown Whittier Specific Plan, and MIT Experimental Design Studio near downtown Boston are examples of what vast majority of the material city is: banal and everyday, rather than extreme and spectacular. We can gain much by understanding how the everyday banality of the decent city is designed, represented, produced, occupied, experienced, and ultimately, transformed to benefit increasing numbers of citizens.

Second, there is much to be gained through the examination of case studies of urbanism, not necessarily as best practices or models for emulation, but rather as realms of critical insight regarding how different modes of design practice yield different types of outcomes. These require fine-grained analyses to help us grasp a more complex understanding of the many contextual variations of the circulation of capital, the works of state bureaucracy, or the dynamics of stakeholder interests in city-design-and-building processes. While broader patterns can and do emerge, we should also not shy away from discordant conversations where differences and contradictions are juxtaposed through more fruitful conversations.

Third, the notion of design itself—especially in the urban context—needs to be further challenged and reconsidered, as I have done in this essay. While there is some truth to the notion of urbanism as a kind of designed setting for economic exchange, political expression, or social interaction and to the idea that particular types of design can inspire particular types of behavior, the greatest potential lies in the notion of design as a practice that is deeply engaged with the power structures, economic realities and social dynamics of the city. Examples of such engagement includes processes of urbanism that politically empower communities, designing the invisible structures that shape the material city [e.g. land use regulations, property ownership structures, ways in which scarce resources are allocated], and strategic interventions that can lead to significant change [e.g. designing the public realm to meet pressing social needs].

Fourth and finally, a number of critical research questions emerge out of this discussion. For example,
• How does one characterize the role of power in urbanism? Who actually designs the city? Who wields greater influences on the shape of the city and through what kinds of mechanisms? What role does power and its uneven distribution play in the shaping of cities? How do these power imbalances manifest themselves spatially?
• What are the spaces of productive tension in the decent city? How are these spaces designed and produced institutionally, and occupied and modified over time?
• What types of phenomena show up at what scales? Scales could include a specific piece of land, a neighborhood, an agglomeration of neighborhoods, a city, a metropolitan region, multiple counties, a state, nation, a global scale, and a whole range of intermediate scales. What are some of the critical scalar relationships in urbanism, and why?
• What are informal urbanisms? The notion of informality continues to be defined, redefined and debated, but do we truly understand its multifaceted nature? What would it mean to adopt an investigative and engaged approach rather than a “know-it-all” approach to informal urbanisms and how they occur in different parts of the world, including the Global North as well as the Global South?
Some work has been done of these types of research questions, but much more needs to be done. There is great potential here for both theor

  1. These ideas are described in greater detail in Aseem Inam, Designing Urban Transformation (New York / London: Routledge, 2013).
  2. Louis Wirth, Urbanism as a Way of Life, The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 44, number 1, July 1938, pages 1-34.
  3. Kevin Lynch, Good City Form (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1981), page 1.
  4. Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design (Malden MA: Blackwell, 2006), page 80.
  5. These projects are more fully analyzed in the book Designing Urban Transformation and additional case studies can be found in the book as well as on the companion website, including Al Azhar Park in Cairo, Big Dig in Boston, Ciclovia/Cicloruta in Bogota, High Line in New York, Olympic Village in Barcelona, Orangi Project in Karachi, Pompidou Center in Paris, Portland Loo System in Portland, and Third Water Park in Belo Horizonte.
  6. Charles Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by Charles Hawthorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-1935), volume 5, paragraph 9.
  7. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), pages xxvii-xxix.
  8. William James, A Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans Green and Co., 1909), pages 263-264.
  9. Richard Rorty talks about all areas of culture being part of the same endeavor to make life better, while John Dewey argues that knowing and doing are indivisible aspects of the same process of learning and adaptation.
About the Author
Aseem Inam is Director of the Theories of Urban Practice Program, Associate Professor of Urbanism at Parsons The New School for Design.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.