Kinds of Urban Design



While hunting for other information, I came across a list that I generated that classifies the kinds of urban design projects and/or practice an urban designer might do.  The list was provoked by classifying the wide range of projects I saw while participating as a juror for the national 2009 AIA Awards for Urban Design and Planning:

Client/development focused:

1.        New Cities and City Districts/one client team – planning led by architect/urban designers and infrastructure engineers. Implementation by a several design teams and, perhaps, by sub-developers

2.       Concentrated Infill Urbanism (phased complexes of 3 to 10 buildings)/one client team – planning led by architect/urban designer.  Implementation typically by the same design team, but late phases by others

3.       Scattered Infill Urbanism/one client team (typically a municipality or a non-profit CDC) – master plan for surgical infill of housing and/or neighborhood services in order to revitalize a neighborhood district.

4.       Urban Park/one client (government agency or public/private partnership) – when a stand-alone project, typically led by a landscape architect

5.       Urban Streetscape Improvements/ (government agency or public/private partnership) – led by an urban designer or a landscape architect

Regulatory framework focused:

1.       Master planning leading to design guidelines (for height, massing, program mix, etc.)/one client team (typically a municipality or a public/private partnership) – planning led by architect/urban designers

2.       Master planning leading to form-based and/or performance-based zoning/one client team (typically a municipality or a public/private partnership) – planning led by architect/urban designers

3.       Streetscape guidelines/one client team or a consortium – led by an urban designer or a landscape architect

4.       Development opportunity assessment and parcel testing/one client team (typically a government agency, public/private partnership, or a economic development organization) – led by architect/urban designer and a development finance consultant


The Virtues of Acoustically Lively Spaces


I ate at Jacob Wirth’s in Boston the other evening, an authentic “Olde Tyme” Boston restaurant that pre-dates the kitschy Cheers-inspired pubs and sports bars by several decades.  What I most appreciate about the restaurant is the acoustic liveliness of the space, a characteristic of public and semi-public spaces that have been slowly edited from contemporary life.  The reasons for this transformation may include the ease of maintenance of modern wall-to-wall carpeting, the marketing juggernaut of the same carpet industry, and the taste regime of an American middle class bred on Marriott lobbies and US Air departure lounges. 

Maybe I am expressing my nostalgia for pre-War public buildings with their Pink Tennessee Marble wainscoting and terrazzo floors (a recent visit to the New Bedford, MA City Hall was VERY satisfying), but there are cultural advantages to lively acoustics in public spaces. Ironically, the din of spaces like Jacob Wirth allows you to have a private conversation with several people at normal volume; something that isn’t possible when sitting at a fully carpeted and padded restaurant. 

If you are not sure of exactly what I mean, listen to the first few seconds of the Beatles song “St. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.”  When I hear the song, it triggers the childhood memory of our requisite annual field trip to the Pittsburgh zoo, which always included a stop at the acoustically lively elephant house  – nostalgia indeed.


100 Year Old Color Photographs


In 1909, Russian photographer Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky traveled across his country to document the people and scenery of the time.  Using a technique he had developed in his own photography studio, Prokudin-Gorsky was able to capture incredible color photographs.  With a background in arts and chemistry, as well as funding from Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky used a technique which required subjects to pose for up to one minute as three exposures were taken with different color filters.  When combined, the exposures reproduced accurate color.  An interesting result of this process is the ‘wax sculpture’ quality of the subjects, which comes from having to pose for such a long exposure even when depicting labor and interaction. 


Our young friend in the bottom left illustrates what happens when you don’t sit still:


Though the earliest color photographs date back to the 1870’s, the color and clarity of these photographs would not be translated into a technique available to the public for several decades. 



The Ordering Logic of Private Gardens

During a recent visit to the University of Virginia, I was reminded of the beautiful logic of the gardens behind the Pavilions on Thomas Jefferson’s Lawn.  Despite the fact that the gardens and Pavilions have always been University property, each Pavilion (on the Lawn) and Hotel (on the parallel row of Ranges) has its own dedicated “private” garden.  The result is a larger logic that half of the Pavilion gardens are only half a module deep because the other half of the garden zone is dedicated to the Hotel pavilion behind.  The alleys and small courts that are left over between the gardens are dedicated to service access.


This clear division of open space into clearly public (The Lawn), private (the gardens), and service domains is a particularly Anglo-American idea of the landscape that is also evident in the reconstruction of the original Plymouth colony at kitschy but fascinating Plimoth Plantation south of Boston.


Here, like Jefferson’s Lawn, most of the open space is privatized by garden fences, that despite their primitiveness, serve the same territorial and spatial function as Jefferson’s more elegant serpentine walls.  The palisades at Plymouth are roughly the same height as both the garden walls at the University Virginia and the stockade fences that separate the back yards of my own block in South Boston.


Map-making Standards

I’m always on the lookout for map and information graphic drawing techniques. Here’s an interesting post from the blog Making Maps: DIY Cartography that shows some best practices for line quality from a 1984 book.

Say NO to corner gaps!



Scupper obsession

Anyone who has spent any time with me knows that I am completely obsessed with scuppers.  In the architectural theory seminar I have been teaching at Northeastern University, I have pitched “scuppers” as a student topic several times – to no avail.  Happily, Amanda Lawrence, Christina Crawford, and Deborah Kully have agreed to add scuppers to the list of potential student topics for the expanded and improved version of the course being taught during the 2009-2010 academic year.  Scuppers were also one of the stormwater approach typologies we included as a research topic in the Yale urban design studio I coordinated this spring.

We are also integrating a large scupper into the visitor information facility we are designing on the Rose Kennedy Greenway for the National Park Service and Island Alliance.  In fact, both roofs of the double pavilion act as a kind of super-scupper that guides water to a yet-to-be-designed splash block on the lawn.


Le Corbusier’s mother-of-all scuppers at Ronchamp


Simple downspout and sexy splashblock courtesy of the Shakers (courtesy of Chris Genter)


Roberto Burle Marx and Gio Ponti, Villa Planchart, Caracas (courtesy of Chris Genter)