Alan J. Simpson

Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Street Space Society

Street Space Society

Alan Jackson Simpson - Professor of Architecture and Urbanism


Architecture urbanism and community outreach

Because of its interdisciplinary base the Study and Practice of Urbanism has no home in any of the existing professions or institutions. It has problems of a common language. And it suffers from the lack of formalized procedures between disciplines involved in similar issues.

Although architecture is a team profession, demanding different talents and specializations within its generalist framework, urban design demands a broadening of teams and a complexity far beyond anything experienced within architecture before. Everyone involved in the art of city building needs to understand the processes and language of urban design.

The interdisciplinary network that urbanism represents needs to expand in practice and politics, in education and research, and broadly within the university, correlating inputs and learning experiences from many directions. The network within the university should be seen as a microcosm of the network that is the urban laboratory itself. Getting political leadership, public officials and professional advisers to be sensitive to the aspirations of citizens and to understand the impacts of their policies and decisions is an important aspect of urban design communications. Carefully prepared presentations at public hearings, public debate and in the media are important components in advising, often educating, decision makers before historic buildings are razed; budgets are spent; a park has been paved; a highway has been rammed through; an unsatisfactory project has been built: and the evolution of good urbanism has been permanently diverted.

That is until the decisions made by those with a professional responsibility for city making, in policy, planning and design - architects, urbanists, planners, historians, political scientists, sociologists, urban economists - are based on interdisciplinary work, the language of which is urban design. Only in this way will standards in public and professional activity become accountable and in the public interest - and less a matter of rhetoric.

It is clear that fundamental to good design and communication is sound research in Urbanism – research essentially contextual in nature – which has characteristics that differentiate it from research in other fields. Like urbanism itself, urban design research is generalist, covering several related specialist areas, and its goal is to create and sustain good urbanism in the public interest.

A culture of research on a broadly accepted methodological basis is needed within the interdisciplinary urban professions. Its methodologies should be designed to provide overall and accepted strategies to enable various institutions, universities and agencies to be coordinated in direction, quality and comparison. Research findings will thus become invaluable resources for policy formulation and funding mechanisms.

Urban design is concerned with creating valuable new options in old or new contexts, rather than applying systems already in existence. In addition to monitoring case studies, research should also therefore be a tool in the process of active experimentation, temporary transformations, integral to the sequence of a project's organization, implementation and evaluation.

Urban design involves the creation of costly and relatively permanent environmental features. The urbanist must be concerned with the consequences of everything he does, not only because people are going to be living with the results, but because he is sometimes substantially changing the course of a city's future.

So, whatever experimentation is done must be of a type that allows adjustments to be made and failures to be corrected. Research into parallel projects, and into the sequential steps of a project, is therefore an invaluable tool, and informed feedback can lead to a better informed accommodation of needs or changes in programs.

Once a taxonomy of case studies and evaluations have begun to be developed, experiences drawn from Research and Practice in Urbanism project-by-project, may be organized as parallel comparative case studies over a period of years, and include design administration; design legislation; issues of communication and education; and comparative impacts on urban economics, sociology, and demography. Because physical design is a visual language, architects are able to make connections between information distilled from research and three dimensional physical expression. They are also able to discern or derive meaning in visual form from human aspirations expressed both directly and from case studies.

Amongst Schools of Architecture long established core requirements remain structure, history and design, with the acknowledged primary emphasis in the design studio. The traditional design studios still deal with problem solution rather than problem definition, and tend to do this as architectural design in isolation rather than in interdisciplinary settings.

In contrast design education, to be reflective of public concerns and issues, should offer opportunities to develop skills that are responsive to the continuously changing conditions of our cities - conditions which in turn must be seen as the basis for physical form.

New curricula must be developed in design schools to sharpen the skills needed to define issues, encourage dialogue, collect and analyze information, and understand the processes of urban change. Courses must be offered that make clear how economic, social and political permutations can be generators of alternative physical form in given local contexts. Indeed, schools may consider making the urban contexts all around them, wherever they are located, their primary workshops or living urban laboratories.

Interdisciplinary research and workshops were begun by Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1960’s, while parallel work continued through the 1990’s by David Lewis in the use of Pittsburgh as an urban laboratory by the graduate program in urban design at Carnegie-Mellon University. Yale in New Haven, Connecticut; Ohio State in Columbus; and the University of California at Berkeley are notable examples of universities which also offer urban design workshops and community outreach programs to address specific issues in their own communities, in collaboration with citizens and government.

Schools of architecture, through their design studios, can become the catalysts for interdisciplinary partnerships with the university. They should combine the interdisciplinary opportunities of research, and they can generate resource material that is multi-disciplinary finding a way to share it with students and teachers in other disciplines and also with cities, government agencies and others that might use it.

Design studios thus begin to reinterpret the traditional role of the university in community service, and make the idea of community service curricular rather than extracurricular; bringing people, problems and issues into the core of the university as living resources in the setting of practical urban workshops and the study of Urbanism.