The Letting Go: Loose Planning for Urban Spaces

As urban designers, we commonly adhere to a formalism of practice that involves guiding built form, assigning uses and structuring the public realm. However, successful urban design is not always the result of studied forethought; it is, at times, spontaneous, informal, and unplanned. While my own professional practice involves designing “planned” urban regeneration, my ulterior interest in cities concerns the appropriation of space for uses never intended. In my estimation, a city is most engaging when its layered physical history reveals how public space can be repositioned in an opportunistic fashion, over time, by many different populations, to many different ends.

Our cities are in constant flux, but for some (one thinks of Rome) the historic center remains relatively “fixed” in form. In such cases, urban design practice that focuses on wholesale transformation and the principles of “master planning” is marginalized in historic city centers, given the spatial constraints on the built environment. Rather than large-scale, design-driven change, some city centers depend on informal operations in the public realm to evolve their urban form. These are driven by opportunity, need, and cultural expression, resulting in the social production of space—what Edward Soja calls the “socio-spatial dialectic,” where space alone is an abstraction, requiring human dynamics to give it identity.

Appropriation of flexible public spaces allows for logistics, celebrations, and quotidian routines to find their way into fixed city form. Everyday spaces used in this manner have written a narrative of temporal and technological change, from hosting civic dialogues and religious celebrations to accommodating markets and transportation logistics. Such evolution—the result of democratic instincts and needs—brings a sense of collective ownership to public spaces that formalized planning and design tends to lack. In this sense, the intentions of a designer or the afterthought of spatial planning, becomes defined by new populations. This intuitive operation within the public realm and its potential applicability to design practice, is at the core of my interest. It raises the question: can everyday informality and creative appropriation of public space serve as an alternative to deliberate planning and design?

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Urban space that accommodates the unforeseen – parking in a piazza

While the Tactical Urbanism approach begins to lend itself to this idea, it still does so by consciously permitting or planning for what might be uses that are initially not intended for some spaces, for example an astroturf putting green in a parking lot, but this is not done by natural evolution. Granted, Tactical Urbanism brings to light that spaces have the potential for different uses and new modes of activation, but flea markets and sidewalk sales have been telling us the same for decades, and never required a title to give it planning legitimacy. Tactical Urbanism is to be applauded in its approach to short term interventions for long term change (when successful), but its greatest challenge at this point is to resist the inevitable march toward becoming codified and regulated out of memorable experience.

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Over-planning interventions can leave little room for improvisation

The tactics that generate unforeseen patterns and trajectories in the city—the “urban unconscious,” as Michel deCerteau calls it—can inform urban design practice by demonstrating the efficacy of intuition and inventiveness within the public realm. It is my belief that the observations of cultural theorists, sociologists and human geographers such as deCerteau and Edward Soja should be directly applied to urban design practice—working from the inside out, identifying the manners by which our cities are experienced rather than planned.


Intuition and chaos in the urban scene at Haymarket

I suggest a provocation to the traditions of urban design practice, presenting an alternative model where cultural theory and human geography—rather than design ideology—inform new modes of thinking on how we design and plan for our cities. Although the approach outlined here is at the scale of the public realm, it elicits thinking about the implications to multiple scales of urban design and planning. How can we as urban designers and urban planners consciously allow for and integrate future interventions of the unplanned in professional practice, acquiescing to an inevitable and collective will for change?

A flexible method that embraces informality and appropriation within a fixed city could be of great value to cities with changing demographics and constrained resources. To allow for and integrate the future interventions of the unplanned in professional practice; to explore a more passive and flexible approach; for designers and planners, this is the letting go.