Though scarcely acknowledged, urban planning is in the midst of a fundamental shift in professional focus. The public is demanding the change. It's a simple idea, as well as an old one: Planners need to understand design. This is because urban planning in America has followed the larger culture into an era where style is substance.
This fundamental shift should send planners back to school with a fresh academic pursuit — architecture and landscape architecture. These topics are simply not part of North American universities' planning curriculum. Since the 1940s, top planning academicians have eschewed urban design as "orthogonal thinking." Long misunderstood by the public, the planning profession is in fact rooted in the tradition of social welfare and — this can be difficult for some of us to admit — social engineering. Physical planning has focused on color-coded plan maps, legalistic zoning codes, trip generation, and population pyramids — topics far afield from the more right-brained world of design, and far from issues that currently inspire the public. Nonetheless, since World War II, built environment design issues have been left for architects and landscape architects.
Until now. The late 19th Century theories of cities and urban space popularized by Daniel Burnham (architect) and Frederick Law Olmstead (landscape architect) are all the rage today. Re-popularized by the neotraditional urban design movement led by Andres Duany (architect) and coupled in various combinations with the transit-friendly geometric city design of Peter Calthorpe (architect), the old has become new again. And planners, with their policies, codes and standards, are expected to make sense of it because the public demands it.
Frank Ramirez, senior planner for the Governor's Office of Planning & Research (OPR), has noticed the drift of planning toward design concerns. OPR reports that 51% of California's 477 municipalities now employ design guidelines. Ramirez, who reviews general plan elements submitted by the state's local governments, notes a strong increase in communities that have adopted optional urban design elements as part of their general plans. Of the 91 cities that have adopted such elements, one-third have done so during the last five years.
"Cities are more aware of their limited space. They want to ensure that their developed areas are livable and provide a high quality of life," Ramirez said. He sees the design movement being rooted in smart growth impulses. "Cities are encouraging infill because they are beginning to realize that the sprawl model costs more to service." He notes the wide variety of design approaches that have come into being. Built-out communities pay attention to street design, while expanding cities focus on private development standards.
Designers who are engaged in developing guidelines and elements also note the surge in interest in regulation related to quality-of-life issues. "People in general are much more vocal and involved in the development of their communities" than 20 years ago, said Erik Justesen, an urban designer trained in landscape architecture with San Luis Obispo-based RRM Design Group. He noticed that community interest in design really began to take hold during the 1980s, a period noted for the first large-scaled post-modernist developments — such as Michael Graves' Humana tower in Louisville, Kentucky — and the deconstructivist work of architect Frank Gehry.
There is likely a marketing element at play, too. Justesen observes that the growing competition between communities for attracting shoppers and tourists drives demand for good design. "Cities have a desire to distinguish themselves as destinations. They are realizing that attractive environments attract people. Retail developers, too, realize that," he said.
John Chase holds a lonely post as one of only a handful of urban designers employed to review design by a city government in California – in his case, West Hollywood. Despite the growth in public interest in urban design, Chase wonders if his profession is more accepted in the private sector, where he notes a string of consulting firms have hired urban designers right out of school to serve their public agency clients better.
Chase, a trained architect, serves primarily as an advisor on development review and the design of public spaces in West Hollywood, such as the recent redesign of Santa Monica Boulevard. He answers to the planning manager, and he understands that urban planning abandoned design as a primary concern decades ago and is now in the rediscovery process. He suspects the popularization of design is tied to what he calls the "Martha Stuart phenomenon" – the notion that everything can be dressed up and that, in so doing, quality of experience is improved. In this line of theory, merchandizing and branding have become so integral to culture that the public demands branding and packaging of urban space.
Whereas it seems that there is something to the notion that "city-as-theme-park" impulses are at play in current redesigns of urban retail and entertainment-oriented downtowns, there are just as many legitimate calls for a humanizing and beautification of public spaces in our cities. To LA-based urban designer and landscape architect Patricia Smith, the three most important urban design tenets are the relationship of buildings to the street, the design of the street/public space itself, and the design of access and "wayfinding." Smith and Chase agree that in order to get a good result from the myriad forms of urban design policies/guidelines/codes, it is critical to require that design-trained professionals be involved with both writing and with implementation.
"Interpretation of standards is critical," said Smith. "There are always unique circumstances that confront a design problem where a fundamental understanding of the intent is essential to enable a creative solution."
Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.