Urban Design is the art of creating and shaping cities, from public spaces to neighbourhoods, it is the tool that makes cities inclusive, equitable, sustainable and connected. Operating at many scales, from micro to macro – Urban design involves a multidisciplinary approach including architecture, landscape, economics, law, engineering among others. 

Having said that, principles of urban design aim to create quality environments through interventions that challenge and resolve our understanding of social, political, cultural and spatial systems. Moreover, it is mainly about creating comfortable environments with a “people first” approach and empowering them by introducing vitality and synergy in the urban sphere. 

Over the years, there have been multitudinous theories and research on the urban front, namely by Gehl, Jacobs, Lefebvre, Lynch, Tschumi, Koolhaas among others which focus on different aspects in the urban sphere. From my point of view, urban theories critically analyse and challenge existing perspectives, initiating active discussions for the urban futures of cities. 

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Having urban knowledge is integral in producing cities that are dynamic, inclusive and innovative. Not only will dividing urban theories into typologies orchestrate the rather scattered and exhaustive field, but also, provide us with the foundation to place new models in an interpretative and navigable fabric. 

Recent research done by Hooman Foroughmand Araabi focuses on breaking down typologies of Urban Design Theories that help compose a better picture of the shared knowledge in the field. 

He differentiates them into three distinct types:

  1. Theories about the subject within urban design
  2. The objects of urban design; and lastly, 
  3. The knowledge of urban design

Moreover, he looks at them as layers that come together and interact with one another to form new paradigms that aim at generating discourse for a more equitable and responsive city experience.  

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  • Theories about the Subject within the Urban Design

This typology focuses on theories that usually surround a particular subject and offers solutions to the problem realised. They usually are prescriptive, extending concepts that give comprehensive knowledge about the subject in focus. Having different backgrounds, this model helps us build ethical loops concerning global justice and equity in the city. 

Often, classified by a common goal or aim, the core of such theories lies in values of inclusiveness, sustainability and safety. Furthermore, many texts of such nature explore the current predicaments of the city and suggest conceptual approaches to make life in cities better.

For instance, theories like Image of the city by Kevin Lynch examine how people perceive built environments around them and navigate through the city. He recognises architectural values based on physical elements of the city like paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks and attempts to understand how people use them to make mental maps. 

Also, a theory that sheds light on the subject of safety is Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities – which suggests strategies to make streets and neighborhoods safe, and how they function in the macrocosm of the city. Many more theories like – The Social Life of Small Urban Places by Whyte to Life Between Buildings by Gehl, can exist within categories that help elicit a social response. 

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  • The Objects of Urban Design

Urban design theories in this typology focus more on the comprehensiveness of the field. They often use other theories as descriptive notes to come up with newer ideas that aim to be strategies on how to deal with an urban problem. 

With theories that are related to one another, it gives an added context to the fundamental nub, creating critical proximity between two relative concepts. However, they help us understand intersectionality, which grows from varied contexts and cognise us with better images of the city. 

For example, urban theories like Collective Form by Fumihiko Maki or Tschumi’s understanding of Deconstructivism – remain critical for our understanding of conceptual and symbolic design conditions. Having a descriptive as well as a prescriptive approach establishes meaning that connects theoretical argument to the point where solutions can be implemented. 

From Public Places Urban Spaces by Carmona et al. to Jan Gehl’s Cities for People, showcase not only research of our urban environments but also stipulates a “toolbox” that gives methods to make our cities lively and safe. 

  • Theories about the Knowledge of Urban design

This last typology focuses on theories that often just provide an insight into an aspect of urban design. They might stem from different perspectives but do not pose any solution, they propose a framework which can be adapted into further research or applications. 

The aim of such theories is often to just introduce a seed of thought that can further be a part of the discourse. Texts belonging to this category often bring perspectives from different disciplines like Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City that stems from social Marxist philosophy or from within like Kinetic City by Rahul Malhotra that observes the ephemeral nature of Indian cities, yet it keeps open on how we can use that to deal with urban transitions of fast-paced cities. 

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Ideas of Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York almost acts as a manifesto, a text that encourages us to understand what goes behind his thoughts and critically extract meanings from theory. This holistic approach is also seen in theories by Walter Benjamin, whose eclectic ideas, combined elements from his knowledge of aesthetics theory, literary criticism and modernist interpretations. 

This categorisation, though offers a model for us to understand and systemise our approach towards urban design theories, it does not encompass all the possible typologies or might overlap due to its shared structure. Urban theories are plenty and structuring them would only push us to share knowledge through active research, education and civic advocacy. 

What’s important is to look at these urban strategies and theories in layers, where we can actively start to link, question and analyse them to enhance our body of work, that would further lead our urban inquiries in an integrated and productive way. 

References:

Foroughmand Araabi, H. A typology of Urban Design theories and its application to the shared body of knowledge. Urban Des Int 21, 11–24 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/udi.2015.6

Author

Nakshi is a recent architecture graduate from BSSA, Mumbai who thrives on the visual and the literary. With a special interest in graphic design, urban design and research, Nakshi is deeply interested in culture, poetry and music. Born and raised in Mumbai, she is often found scrolling through random newsletters or searching for vinyl and erasers to add to her collection

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