Xu Zhang was in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and a Shinichiro Watari Fellow. She is an alumna of McDonnell Academy partner Tsinghua University–Beijing, China, and received her master’s degree in Architecture and Urban Design from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis in 2014. She is currently an architect at Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners in California, USA.
Illustrating Urban Design
Friends have asked me what urban design is. Despite its frequent appearance in educational and professional literature, urban design is still an ambiguous term, used differently by different groups in different circumstances. If we interpret it based on the two words themselves, we can trace the endeavor back to ancient times, to 1406 to be precise, and to the great designer Liu Bowen who planned the city of Beijing following the orders of Emperor Yongle.
Modern urban design emerged in the 1920s, in response to the rapid urbanization in the western world, aiming at solving problems of hygiene, slums, and other concerns caused by high-density populations. They separated the function of land, advocating for decentralized garden cities to improve modern life. While urban renewal largely proved a failure, the professional identity of urban design also changed. Today the practice of urban design, while still comprising participation from architecture, landscape architecture, and planning, has forged a distinctive identity with applications at different scales.
Urban design can be applied simply to a building. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, for example, has brought worldwide attention to a riverfront restructuring process. It operated as an elegant and unifying catalyst for a comprehensive and physically influential set of riverfront reconstruction for the post-industrial city.
Urban design can also be applied to a park. In New York City, the recycling of a railway into an urban park brought on the revitalization of Chelsea and spurred real estate development in the neighborhoods that lie along the railway line. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that the High Line project helped usher in something of a renaissance in the neighborhood. For example, by 2009, more than 30 projects were planned or under construction nearby.
Urban design isn’t all about simply being aesthetically pleasing. Rather, it concerns the quality of life and liveability of the built environment. The Malgueira Housing Projects in Evora, Portugal is an example of a residential quarter designed by using a very limited palette. It provides the basic structure, and the open space serves as an additional surface for future expansion depending on the needs of the family. The project tactically solved the severe housing issue Portugal had at that time by providing adequate housing and preventing the displacement of low-income citizens.
Urban design doesn’t have to be limited to a physical form. Privately owned public spaces (POPS) in New York City offer zoning concessions to commercial and residential developers in exchange for a variety of spaces accessible and usable for the public. As a result, an impressive amount of public space has been created in parts of the city with little access to public parks.
Finally, urban design can be a vision for the future of the city, a program that responds to the rapidly changing social, economic, and environmental circumstances.
Last spring, our design studio in the Sam Fox School of Washington University focused on how to reimagine a space in San Francisco in 2050 with the current rise in sea level projections. Our proposals painted a picture of a dynamic, flexible, and green city.
Urban design draws together the many strands of place-making, environmental stewardship, social equity and economic viability into the creation of places with distinct beauty and identity. It is derived from, but transcends planning and transportation, architectural design, economics, engineering, landscape, history, sociology, geography, anthropology, law, and public policy. So my friends, please join us and share your great minds. Let’s do urban design together.