New Directions in Urban Design - RSA

New Directions in Urban Design


  • Picture of Rami el Samahy
    Rami el Samahy
    Architect and Urban Planner
  • Design
  • Environment
  • Cities

Intentional guidelines can support a pluralistic, flexible and inclusive approach to building

As both a practising architect and an academic, one is used to (and indeed, enjoys) straddling what can be done and what ought to be done. These competing priorities can help shape a productive tension. That tension plays out most palpably in the urban realm, an area of interest for both the practice and our research. We gravitate towards urban design because of its liminal nature as the space between planning and architecture and, also, as “the space between buildings”, as the Danish urban designer Jan Gehl famously described it. Here, issues of aesthetics, character, function, policy and politics are all at play.

Over the past two decades, my academic research and my firm’s projects have concentrated in two areas of the world: the rapidly growing new metropolises of the Persian Gulf and post-industrial towns of the American northeast. On the surface, the difference could not be more stark: fast growth versus slow decline; issues of water scarcity in hot desert climates versus threats of flooding in a humid continental climate; top–down development versus grass-roots capacity-building.

In other ways, however, they are surprisingly similar. In both cases, these conurbations came to fruition via a combination of geography and human determination. Built in large part with an influx of immigrant communities, the original raison d’être of both locales stems from the sudden growth of one or two industries (oil and/or natural gas in the Gulf cities; coal and navigable riverways in the northeast US). And while Gulf city populations are currently experiencing rapid growth, and the American post-industrial cities have experienced steep decline compared with their heyday, they can each be thought of as being at different points along a similar historical trajectory.

Through a combination of happenstance and proclivity, much of our professional work in these cities and towns involves the creation of urban design guidelines, an urban design tool even less well defined than urban design itself. Generally speaking, urban design guidelines are a set of statements and illustrations that combine to describe the desired qualities in the development of an urban environment. Put another way, guidelines sit between the master plan of the neighbourhood, district or city and the architecture of individual buildings or public places. They help imagine the future character of a specific area, be it district, neighbourhood or street.

Unlike zoning codes, which carry the weight of law, guidelines might be described as a strong suggestion, serving as guidance for future development. In this way, they reflect the values of the community, set expectations for future form and character of buildings, open spaces, and streetscapes, and serve to encourage better-quality design of those buildings, open spaces and streetscapes. Design guidelines cannot change land uses, dimensional requirements (eg building heights) or impose strict limitations on building form or style,unless the governing authority chooses to tie the guidelines directly to a sale or incorporate into law.

Guidelines are an ideal way to study – and shape – the character of a place

What is the point of guidelines, one might ask, if they cannot compel better design? This is a fair question, and reflective of the relatively lacklustre quality of many urban design guidelines. Too often they have been poorly considered, created as an afterthought, and serve as a weak coda to a master planning effort. When timed to coincide with a master planning effort, however, and/or when given proper investment of time and resources, urban design guidelines can be a robust process with equally powerful results.

Ultimately, design guidelines are shaped by stakeholder values, which vary from (and within) place to place. In essence, they relate to the way in which the relevant constituencies evaluate a successful return on investment (ROI), and the length of time in which they are willing to wait for it. Typically, a developer’s ROI has a relatively short-term outlook; they want to build and sell. As a result, they are less attracted to sinking high initial costs that only see a return in the long run.

For a municipality, an educational or cultural institution, or a community group, the cost–benefit analysis differs significantly, and in ways that might justify higher initial costs to create a future that is economically, socially and environmentally more sustainable. Unsurprisingly, it is these groups that seek to create more effective guidelines, in part as a means to pressure individual developers to create better quality projects.

Guideline efforts that run parallel to master plans can be a productive way to ‘audit’ master plans. Master plans tend to work at the largest scale, from the outside in. The shaping of individual buildings and public places are typically determined via a combination of development factors (eg how many floors can be built on a given parcel) and an aesthetic argument around geometric form (eg a road network of curvilinear paths will likely result in different parcels than a gridded street network).

A guidelines approach complements this thinking by starting from the inside out, understanding, for example, a given parcel’s suitability for a particular building type (office, residential, mixed-use). These sorts of iterative design ‘test-fits’ can produce quick answers that serve to better calibrate a master plan. They also serve as a first step to visualising the kind of development desired, not only in terms of building form (size, height, shape) but also in terms of look and feel (materials used, interface at the ground floor, relationship to the street).

Guidelines are an ideal way to study – and shape – the character of a place. Our approach always involves a deep dive into the cultural, economic, environmental and demographic context of an area. In the city of Chicopee, Massachusetts, for example, we drew upon a shared legacy of immigration to find commonalities across multiple ethnic groups who were often at odds in this once prosperous mill town, which is now home to a younger (and browner) group of entrepreneurs. In Cambridge, we have sought to counter concerns that new affordable housing guidelines might ‘alter the character’ of a neighbourhood through analysis that highlights the already eclectic nature of the city’s locales.

Understanding this context also provides a deeper understanding of extant built form and a fuller explanation for the decisions that might initially appear stylistic. For example, a Middle Eastern building that pre-dates air-conditioning and is oriented to receive the prevailing breeze through an intricately patterned screen system was not installed because the denizens liked mashrabiyya screens, but because the many small holes accelerate the velocity of the wind as it passes through, thus cooling down interior spaces more effectively.

Guidelines are by nature open-ended; flexibility is built into the format and the intent of the documents

By understanding the performative basis underpinning the evolution of site-specific traditions, one is better equipped to enter into a dialogue about the next step in its evolution. From our point of view, it is more effective to base criteria for successful future design on specific measurable criteria than on stylistic desires. Not only do they offer a clearer basis for evaluation, but these performative criteria will also shape the character of future development in a way that more accurately reflects this place and time, one that is rooted in both the current value systems and the realities of contemporary construction cultures.

Through a combination of images (photographs, diagrams and drawings) and explanatory text, guidelines lay out the intent of specific goals and depict ways in which they can be met. In adhering to an approach that applies specific criteria, the drawings will often have specific dimensions or measurements (for example, the dimensions of a window opening, or the percentage of shading desired on a south-facing façade). These are intended to offer guidance to future designers rather than to inhibit them, to serve as a springboard to further creativity rather than a ceiling.

From our point of view, the approach of using images and words to explain intent for future development is analogous to that which informed the conceptual artist Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings. Beginning in the late 1960s, Lewitt began to create instructions for draughtspeople to enact his artworks rather than draw them himself. Each consisted of a diagram and series of written instructions. For example, wall drawing #49 reads: “A wall is divided vertically into fifteen equal parts, each with a different direction and color, and all combinations.”

In part a practical decision (a team could complete a project faster than a single artist), it was, more importantly, an ideological decision, for Lewitt believed that the artistry lay in the concept more than its execution. As his work developed, he came to understand the role of the draughtsperson differently; each had their own agency, style and ability. As a result, the reproductions varied immensely, and yet each followed the instructions faithfully. Urban design guidelines can be seen in a similar way: they provide a manual with ‘instructions’ that allow for multiple interpretations.

Increasingly, urban designers are accepting a changed role in city- and place-making. Rather than the 20th-century view that presented plans for a finished and perfect product, urbanism has come to acknowledge change and incompleteness as realities with which we have to work. It also has come to eschew the notion of a singular vision in favour of a more pluralistic approach, one shaped by the visions and actions of multiple actors, most of whom are not architects, landscape architects or planners.

For this emerging paradigm shift, one would argue that guidelines are an ideal tool. From a procedural point of view, they offer opportunities for multiple voices to weigh in and inform the process: from establishing goals and priorities to responding to the draft words and drawings that serve to shape urban elements. In terms of a product, guidelines are by nature open-ended; flexibility is built into the format and the intent of the documents. At the same time, they provide a means by which community and stakeholder values (ever evolving) are reflected in the built environment. And, like a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, each set of guidelines allows for – indeed is designed for – a plurality of possible outcomes.

Rami el Samahy is an architect and urban planner, an adjunct lecturer at MIT and a founding principal of OverUnder, a Boston-based architecture and design firm

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 1 2023.

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