Opinion article

Urban designers are essential for a resilient society, but where are they?

Van der Veen, R. J.(2022). “Stedenbouwkundig ontwerpers zijn essentieel voor een weerbare samenleving, maar waar zijn ze?” [Urban designers are essential for a resilient society, but where are they?]. In De Architect, December 19, 2022.

According to urban designer Robbert Jan van der Veen, Dutch cities are now designed with too global urban frameworks. These are filled with stamp plans on which mainly architects and landscape architects work, but which lack the expertise of urban designers. And that while it is precisely the social attachment of the urban landscape and neighborhoods that is so important to achieve a resilient society. The need for good urban design is now more important than ever.

By studying the history of urban design education from 1843 (establishment of the Delft Academy) to the present, I hope to find explanations for the undermining, shift and changing positioning of urban design. But also, to get inspired. This history runs parallel to social and political upheavals that have also had an impact on our building culture. I try to imagine how it went. The conversations in 1897 between the artist Jan Toorop and prospective architecture student Marinus Grandpré Molière about the student magazine ‘In den Nevel’. The edition is illustrated with a beautiful fresco by Toorop on the cover. The somewhat intoxicating drawing evokes in me an association of on the one hand shrouded in mist in the factories and industry in the Netherlands, where parliamentary debates were conducted in 1890 and 1894. On the other hand, it suggests a fog that lifts from which something beautiful potentially appears.

Schermafbeelding 2022-09-16 om 07.05.04

Drawing by Toorop on the student magazine 'In den Nevel' from 1897.

Students at the polytechnic college united in ‘De Roode Delft’. They emphasize the importance of clean, safe, healthy, and easily accessible cities in various publications and protests. They regularly appealed to Delft professors and the Dutch parliament to give the discipline of ‘urban design’ more attention and to embed it in Delft in the architecture education. The origin of the urban design discipline was a cry for help from society and was heard by a new generation of students.

The position of the urban designer

Today, society’s cry for help is louder than ever. Society individualizes and polarizes. In addition, all major climatological, ecological, and economic transition challenges largely take place in urban areas. But the urban design discipline fails to focus on further deepening and to continue to innovate within the integration of these themes towards inclusive design principles and to attach the city. We, urban designers, design through scales, towards an involved and resilient society. If the social nature of our profession cannot be embedded in a time of major transitions, market interests will take precedence. The economic position of areas and people is leading, and segregation may be reinforced.

This time therefore calls for urban designers! But our position is increasingly being undermined. Or worse, we undermine ourselves. We do not make our voices heard in society, we take a role as plan-testers for granted and within education urbanism is broadening towards planning and strategy. And that while planning is a different discipline. As a result, our profession is becoming more and more diffuse and broadly positioned and the essence of our society-ordering design discipline does not get to the core. By vigorously deploying urban design as a quality control tool, we can create urban areas that are (financially) accessible to everyone. It is a programmatic and democratic instrument that ensures social cohesion and quality in the urban context. Areas where people can pull themselves together and where people look after each other.

Landscape architects claim the urban outdoor space

I now see that the Netherlands is being organized along tenders for separate neighborhoods and districts. Requests asking for combinations of architects and landscape architects. The urban design discipline is often not required. The result is an urban design based on building structure, aesthetics, and efficiency. The design of the urban outdoor space is claimed by landscape architects. This sometimes translates into ‘over-design’ and ‘radical greening as a goal in itself’.

These stamp plans are spectacles within itself, but not always sufficiently anchored in a larger social context and in sustainable urban systems. Urban designers are involved in these projects, but more often on the commissioning side in a team of lawyers, planners, planning economists and policy advisers. We create the best possible preconditions for overly ‘too’ global urban frameworks. The stamp plans can then take root here with the necessary supervision. As a result, we have moved more towards strategic thinking about urban development and spatial planning.

The domain of the urban designer

I believe that the essence of life and coexistence takes place in the in-between space of the city. This is pre-eminently the domain of the urban designer. Cities, towns, and hamlets are man-made environments and societies. This is where our common culture is most expressed and the relationship between people and the relationship with the environment and nature is most clearly defined. It is wonderful to realize that this fabric has evolved through the ages and that design principles have survived that have proven to be the most resilient. That city must be seen from the bonding and open fabric of space: street life. I believe that the essence of life and coexistence takes place in the in-between space of the city. This is pre-eminently the domain of the urban designer.

In my view, urban designers should make themselves stronger for the public, semi-public and collective use of indoor and outdoor space. We must stand more for the design of flexible and multifunctional outdoor space that people can appropriate. We also need to pay more careful attention to the transitions between indoors and outdoors and the social programming of buildings and outdoor spaces. In the ideal situation, urban designers develop the narrative for a neighborhood, a part of the city or an urban structure. They then generate the inclusive design principles of how this narrative can attach to the larger urban landscape. These principles help safeguard the socio-economic ecosystem that, for example, stimulates and provides space for encounters, associational life, collective security, urban experimentation, healthy exercise, entrepreneurial spirit, and neighborhood activation. A good urban design is not an exercise in filling in the existing, but a basis for the future of society and living together.

2021-07-08 Zoho_lowres-3-1003389

Zoho, Rotterdam, ECHO Urban Design.