New book on urban design: A manifesto for designing cities
Brent D. Ryan has detailed his perspective on urban design in a new book, “The Largest Art: A Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism”, calling for a more pluralistic, democratic vision of the city. The book has been recently published by the MIT Press and the author is an associate professor of urban design and public policy in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
According to MIT professor Brent D. Ryan, the approach to designing cities that are of the people and for the people has been absent from most urban design work. Ryan thinks, today’s cities have been saddled with grandiose urban projects that, although they may have flashy veneers and stylistic coherence, lack sensitivity to the diverse needs of city life and the long timeframes over which urban development is evaluated. The result is that designers, developers, and city officials continue to think of urban design as little more than massive building projects that more closely resemble art for art’s sake than design for people’s sake.
We need to adapt urban design to the kinds of cities and societies that we have. Perfection is not really achievable.
The book is a call for a pragmatic and democratic approach to urban design, one that often acknowledges community input and recognizes the many kinds of “pluralism” in urban life: the numerous interests and built elements that exist, in multiple layers, as cities get built up over time.
“The world is becoming more plural, in many ways. Cities are becoming more plural as they grow in scale. And a lot of the dialogue in urban design shows we’ve been running out of gas, in terms of previous ideologies about how to design the city.”
For all his emphasis on practical pluralism, Ryan very much regards urban design as an art form to be savored — which is partly why he wants to encourage its conceptual reimagination through pluralism.
Furthermore, Ryan’s argument that urban designers should be sensitive to their urban contexts is also informed by his previous work on cities, including his 2012 book, “Design After Decline.” In that volume, Ryan looked at the postindustrial landscapes of U.S. cities and explored the ways planners could help rebuild those areas.
In such circumstances, helping cities evolve is as much of a pressing challenge as helping them expand.
“Cities are becoming larger and more complex, and at the same time, we’re more and more shifting away from building in empty places to building in places already inhabited to some degree. We’re more and more rebuilding the cities we have, as opposed to building new cities at the frontier … and when you’re rebuilding a city, your concerns are entirely different. You’re dealing with multiple property holders, the existing urban fabric, the presence of multiple eras of construction, and all the people who live in those places.”
So while his new book is intended as a “shot across the bow” of academic urban design theory, Ryan says he hopes people will recognize that, if anything, a broader view of the designer’s role can expand opportunities for the profession.
“We need to broaden our approaches and conceptions of urban design,” Ryan says. “If we stick with the unitary conception of urban design, we may not have too much urban design at all any more.”
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