Assignment-formulating urban design - 14.03.2012

The urban designer as moderator

There has been an exponential increase in the complexity of spatial planning in recent years but the integral perception and approach, on the contrary, have become increasingly fragmented and decentralised. Because of this the authorities are no longer capable of steering this complicated process and, moreover, in the past decades, market forces have more or less silenced all ideologies. The consequences are incontestable. Housing-driven spatial planning has made way for economic-driven spatial planning. The cost-price-driven land development model dictates the design of our country and too much precious space is wasted. The urban design discipline can provide alternatives, but the focus should then be shifted from the design assignment to designing the assignment.

 

New relationships

Dissatisfaction with spatial planning is considerable. People are leaving rural areas, urban sprawl is non-stop, nature is disappearing, traffic congestion appears to be unsolvable and the housing and office market is blighted. The majority of the population are concerned about urban sprawl in the Netherlands, but no one is quite sure who is responsible for it. Since the present cabinet disbanded the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, the direction of spatial planning in the Netherlands has been relegated to the broom cupboard of the Ministry of Infrastructure & Environment and cycle shed of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Most local authorities cannot cope with the tasks that the central government has thrown over the fence. The institutional design carried out by the provinces and large municipalities has, in fact, been completely eroded as a result of neo-liberalism. Municipal urban development services have been entirely plundered and reduced to a facilitating organ and, in smaller municipalities, urban planning expertise has gradually and progressively almost completely disappeared. Politicians cannot and will not give any more directions for the future. Opposite this administrative inefficiency stands the extremely efficient lobby of property developers and other market players, but also local residents, competing authorities, environmental activists and nature lovers. Many an ambitious spatial plan has been nipped in the bud in this way or thwarted for years.

 

To an increasing extent the authorities have contracted-out knowledge-based development, process and design activities. Management agencies and consultancies, together with engineering firms, have taken advantage of these developments. They have been able to expand their activities among public bodies and are increasingly leading the process and the consultancy side of spatial planning. Property developers have succeeded in getting involved in area development and have, where necessary, participated in public-private collaboration constructions. In exchange for the conceptual and innovative power provided, market players have determined the programmed and aesthetic implementation according to their own views. At the same time as the change in the urban design assignment, the spatial assignment also changed. The coming decades will be dominated by the continuous transformation of the existing town and village. This extremely complex assignment involves, by definition, a large number of different parties with a diversity of interests.

 

Complexity

The transformation of the existing urban and rural fabric of the Netherlands is not a spatial assignment only, because at the same time economic, social, cultural and political forces play a prominent role. Increasing individualisation, changes in the interpretation of what was once certain, plus the ecological effects of globalisation have consequences for our society. All these social developments have an influence in the field of urban design. The  traditional boundaries of urban and rural planning, urban design and architecture are frequently no longer adequate for the complicated spatial assignments. Contemporary assignments are often situated in the intermediate scale, between urban and rural planning and urban design or between urban design and architecture. Form is increasingly less important in this, programmes and programmed alliances are becoming all the more important. Urban design must search for a new, characteristic leitmotif and logic for the urban and rural fabric and their interrelationship.

 

On the basis of this changing context in which an urban designer must operate, the existing set of tools for urban design is no longer adequate. The urban design discipline should not go diligently in search of new or existing clients, but should meet the changed reality with the aid of its capacity to develop knowledge and to share it, and its potential to be able to look into the future, speculatively and expressively. In this way an essential link can be created between the various parties with divergent motives. Urban development will, however, need to shift its field of activity in the coming years: from carrying out commissions to exploring and interpreting assignments. In this way, the urban design discipline can not only make a contribution towards solving topical issues, it can also proactively secure a serious position in the power arena of spatial planning. An urban designer is, after all, impartial and can operate without premeditation.

 

Assignment-formulating urban design

In the once-productive relationship between design and research there are once again opportunities for a shift of emphasis. Far into the twentieth century architects and urban designers knew how to combine research and design flawlessly in the design world. Reuniting design and research and deploying the strong, analytical, projective and strategically-tactical skills of the discipline creates a form of urban design that we call assignment-formulating urban design.

 

Not only the implementation of clearly-formulated assignments belong to our field of study, but also the exploration, interpretation and translation of complex spatial transformational issues of ambiguous commercial and public significance. A new set of urban design tools combines the qualities of people and topics. The traditional convergent approach is replaced by a divergent way of searching for possible solutions. Ambitions can be formulated and tested against programmed quality, spatial capacity and financial feasibility in multi-disciplinary teams and in temporary alliances. The objective is the creation of added value at all scale levels and on all themes. New programmed concepts and spatial prototypes are continually required in the present market. With assignment-formulating urban design we can supply clients with expertise and knowledge, without a potential conflict of interests. All interests are carefully considered in a clear and transparent way. By controlling the competencies of research, development and design, a distinctive profile is created. Future spatial assignments can be tackled effectively with public and commercial clients.

 

Collaboration with everyone involved and with the parties who have specific expertise at their disposal is crucial for assignment-formulating urban design. From the outset an open attitude is a prerequisite for fostering commitment and creating public support. The urban designer should therefore act as moderator. A moderator steers the process in the right direction and asks the right stakeholder the right questions at the right moment. A moderator can weigh up all the circumstances, preconditions and consequences objectively. The moderator also ensures that the programmed agreements and financial preconditions are underpinned with thorough knowledge, good research and inspiring designs.

"The planning discipline can provide alternatives, but the focus should be shifted from design task to design the task"

"The moderator also ensures that programmatic agreements and financial constraints are base on solid knowledge, good research and inspiring design"

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