We are living in a fascinating time for urban design. Over the past 20 years, at various levels of acceptance, the United States has realized the error in its ways of the past 50-60 years. A half-century of anti-dense and anti-diverse urban planning has rendered our culture vulnerable to collapse. It is as though America has woken up in a strange room—surrounded by people it doesn’t know, without a concept of what happened—with an instinct to extricate itself from this peculiar predicament.
Curiously, the reaction to planning mistakes of the past resulted in city planners and architects creating idealized visions of vibrant cities that seemed to spring up almost overnight. Whether it was the generational change to instant gratification or an honest attempt to fabricate a cure-all, these chia cities—having instantly blossomed into fully developed ecosystems—were designed to emulate traditional town centers found in many older cities that brim with excitement, arts, culture, and commerce.
Unfortunately these attempts did more harm than good. Cities were never created in one stroke, and the simple pleasures of urban living are easy to recognize but are often difficult to predict.
The corner coffee shop with a pleasant barista who knows your order by heart, the shady spot around the corner from your office where you enjoy reading a book, the quiet street lined with boutique retail stores and places to eat, while equally provocative in description each of these pleasures relies on circumstances well beyond our control, and therein lays the great disappointment of urban planners and designers.
Perhaps born out of this disappointment is an increasing trend to plan cities as instant built environments complete with mature trees, fully occupied housing units, and businesses thriving from their consistent local patrons. The problem with this Utopian fantasy is that cities do not appear like Brigadoon, cities evolve. That is not to imply that you cannot plan for growth or even use master planning principles to shape a city environment, but ultimately the design of a place will be a product of its evolution.
The best that you can hope for in a master plan or design is they include the infrastructure necessary for growth in and around the skeletal pieces. Especially with the volatility of economies and the rapid shift in how people “do business,” the City dynamic as we once new it may be entering a new epoch, one without a clairvoyant image of how it may look.
What is required of designers is critical thought as to the patterns of urban living that are tried and true and that provide an appropriate framework for increased density and diversity of uses, options, opportunities, and amenities. With each design, proper criticism should include: what happens if it does not all get built? What happens if it is widely successful and outgrows its constraints? How will it appear differently in 50 years?
I once heard a statistic that 98% of the urban built environment remains the same from year to year. That means that only 2% of a given city is brand new. So instead of envisioning broad-brush solutions that anticipate immediate rewards and instant success, how about designing an urban master plan to occur 2% at a time?