Newly appointed Urban Design professors build bridge between university and practice

The Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment has appointed two new part-time Urban Design professors: Anne Loes Nillesen and Tess Broekmans. With their practical experience, they bring valuable insights to the academic world and vice versa. “TU Delft plays a crucial role in tackling major societal challenges. We need good designers for that.”

Based on her expertise, Anne Loes Nillesen looks at the impact of major transitions on the city such as climate (rising sea levels, heat and precipitation), mobility and circularity across the levels of scale. Tess Broekmans on the other hand zooms in on what is happening in the city: what impact will all the changes have on the daily lives of residents? In any case, the professors have the same goal: to connect practice, research and education in order to promote a fair and sustainable urban environment. How are they going to approach that?

A designer – no matter when or where

Anne Loes Nillesen specialises in challenges at system level, such as climate change and the transition in agriculture. As the founder of Defacto Urbanism, her day-to-day work involves exploring the impact these transitions have on cities: “The objective of this is to, based on a system understanding, develop design principles that improve the quality of urban areas “, says Nillesen. She stresses the importance of integrating research and design: “Research is often treated as a separate project component. You sometimes hear students say: ‘I’ve finished my six months of research, now I’m going to design’. A good designer however also approaches research from a design perspective. When it comes to flood risk management, for example, designers as a concept regularly place the whole of the low-lying Netherlands under water. But the reality is often more nuanced. I find it interesting to use design to systematically explore the impact of rising sea levels over time: what possible strategies are there and what would they mean for your design?”

A fair city

Tess Broekmans wants to bring practice and design education together at the faculty. As a partner at Urhahn Urban Design, she is working on creating a fair city: “Urban design should reflect the experience and the needs of the community, at the same time design can also challenge you to behave and use things differently. The city is for everyone. How do you ensure that everyone continues to feel at home when changes are made in the city? That is a task in which many different areas of expertise come together. As an urban designer, you have to be a good listener.” Broekmans is keen to take those insights with her to TU Delft: “The abundance and diversity of knowledge at TU Delft is necessary for good urban design. I want to collaborate with the area development experts from Architecture and the Built Environment, with behavioural scientists from Industrial Design and traffic engineers from Civil Engineering, to name but a few.”

Flexibility and scope

One of the things that Broekmans often sees go wrong with inner-city design is that too many commitments are made. “Urban design is a slow process. The city that we are currently building was designed ten years ago. A design must be able to respond to changes. For instance, I have been working on the transformation of Oostenburg island in Amsterdam since 2011. We were commissioned by a housing corporation to turn the business park into a live/work area. That was in the middle of the financial crisis, so we put together a plan that could grow in small steps. But by the time our plan was completed, the market had changed. Suddenly, this place was attractive to developers and housing could be built quickly. Because we had committed to the structure and character of the environment, we were able to proceed with our ‘basic plan’. We left plenty of scope within it so that the architects had creative freedom.” Broekmans and her firm are often right at the front line of the planning process: “At that point, a lot is still open. So, what choices do you make? That is what I would like to work on with the students in Delft. How do you get to the core of the task and how do you then translate that task into design ”

On her (often international) projects, Nillesen also incorporates flexibility. “We face major, societal challenges and changes that require long-term strategies that can in time adapt to changing climate and urbanisation rates, energy transition and circularity. We can’t always predict what the impact of developments or policy ambitions will be. It is still uncertain as to how the circular economy will be implemented, for example. As a designer, you must therefore incorporate flexibility towards different development perspectives.”

Stubborn world

Nillesen wants to provide students insight into the professional possibilities urban design offers. “Urban Design is a broad field. I want to show students where and how they will be able to make a contribution from their field: from design agencies to the World Bank or a ministry, skilled designers are needed in order to help with the complex challenges we face.” Broekmans also sees a nice challenge here: “A lot of students who start off studying architecture want to become architects. But urban design is a fantastic subject and you should show why it is fantastic in the Bachelor’s degree. We can play a role in that. But it is important to also manage expectations. A lot of students want to use their knowledge to make the world a better place but practice is often stubborn. We need optimism and enthusiasm. At the same time, I want to keep students from dropping out later on due to the complexity of practice.”

Multidisciplinary collaboration

So there are a lot of great ambitions but the hallmark of these ‘practice professors’ is precisely that a lot of the time they work elsewhere. How are they going to address that? Broekmans: “I need to figure out how I am going to have the most impact on the students with my one day a week. Instead of being a permanent supervisor, I could stimulate design groups at key moments as a ‘visiting critic’. I also like the idea of seeking partnerships with other disciplines and practice and, as a result, showing that we need each other in order to build a fair city.”

Nillesen also wants to pursue that multidisciplinary aspect: “TU Delft plays a crucial role in tackling major societal challenges. That requires intensive collaboration between different faculties and disciplines, as well as the involvement of stakeholders in research and design processes. As an urban designer, your role is beyond ‘this is my idea and that is what we are going to do’. You have to involve stakeholders in your plans and you need other disciplines in order to develop integrated designs. The way you have to position yourself as a designer can vary according to the project. Sometimes you have to win your client over to your ideas while other times you have to keep asking critical questions in order to be able to well connect design, the policy context and economic business cases.”

The two new professors will not only bring practice to the academic world but conversely, will also be taking science back into society. Nillesen: “Designers can make a significant contribution to the major transformations that authorities and sectors are currently working on. It’s essential to connect to the outside world as well. However as a starting point, we will first have coffee with our many colleagues within the university in order to see where and how we can best contribute.”

This text was originally published on June 28, 2023, on the news page of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment of TU Delft.