With end-of-year functions bringing UDF members together this week, here are six questions that should provide some good conversation starters – as well as good food for thought over the Christmas-New Year break. (Plus you can add your own!)
- When and why did you first start identifying as an urban designer or urbanist?
- How do you explain what urban design is to someone who is new to the term ‘urban design’? (in less than 4 sentences if possible 🙂
- Thinking of the impact of the urban forms you experience in your daily life, and where you live, what personally gives you most pleasure and what causes you most pain (annoyance)?
- Why do you think better urban design and the profession of being an urban designer can be a force for good?
- If you were appointed New Zealand’s Urban Design Champion what three changes would be at the top of your agenda and why?
- Can you recommend any cities or books or projects etc that have been special points of inspiration on your urban design journey, or that are on your wish-list to visit or read or do? (feel free to add reasons)
Four members of the UDF Committee have given you a head start below: Co-chairs Lisa Mein and Ekin Sakin, Xin Tian and George Weeks.
When and why did you first start identifying as an urban designer or urbanist?
Lisa: I’ve always lived in cities (except for a stint in the mountains in Colorado, USA in my early twenties) and love the energy of urban areas. I guess I became interested in urban design in the early 90s while studying my Bachelor of Planning at the University of Auckland. I can credit James Lunday for that. I was lucky to live and work in London in the late 90s/early 2000s when urban design was really coming to the fore. I graduated with a MA Urban Design from the University of Westminster in 2001, so I guess I have identified as an urban designer since then and over time come to own the title more and more.
Ekin: At the first year of architectural school in Ankara (Turkey), every week for half a year, I was asked to analyse and come up with a response (not necessarily a building) for a different urban location. I thought I had found my place in the world! It was when I met Jan Gehl in Christchurch a few years later, that I found out that the space I loved to operate in the most was called urban design.
Xin: I began identifying as an urbanist during my PhD research on transforming semi-public spaces in shopping malls into improved daily encounter spaces. Working as an urban designer and engaging in masterplanning, sustainable transport, and detailed design work, further cemented my identity as an urbanist.
George: I can’t remember when I didn’t. I was always, always, always interested in how places fit together. I remember being 12 or so when my family was living in Bristol, walking with my mother and critically observing different spaces and the built environment.
How do you explain what urban design is to someone who is new to the term ‘urban design’?
Lisa: In an article I wrote for the NZIA Auckland Branch newsletter I described urban design in a nutshell as “the science and art of making great places that people want to, and can, live in through different life stages”.
Ekin: Probably because of my architectural background, I often describe it with reference to architecture. Many people are familiar with architecture as a term and it implies a creative shaping activity which is highly relevant to urban design. So, depending on my audience, I might describe urban design using one or more of the following:
- the space between planning and architecture
- architecture of the city
- architecture of the spaces in between buildings in the city
- multi-disciplinary shaping of the city’s physical environment with particular attention to the needs and experiences of the public/ communities of people.
Xin: Urban design involves examining and enhancing the relationships between buildings, streets, and key anchor spaces within a city or urban area.
George: Urban design is all the factors of production that shape the built environment, based ideally on defining an agreed vision.
Thinking of the impact of the urban forms you experience in your daily life, and where you live, what personally gives you most pleasure and what causes you most pain (annoyance)?
Lisa: I live in an inner Auckland suburb – approximately 4km from Auckland’s downtown area. It’s an established suburb and being able to walk from my house to local shops and cafes, parks, friends’ houses, my children’s schools (when they were school age), the zoo, MOTAT, libraries etc, and if the weather is playing ball even into the city centre, are some of the reasons I love where I live. This is in stark contrast to family on both sides of the world who live in rural areas where you literally cannot walk anywhere from their houses. Currently what causes me the greatest annoyance is the unreliability of buses. I LOVE public transport. It’s another benefit of living in urban areas – but only when it is working efficiently.
Ekin: I live in Central City in Christchurch in an apartment. As a family we have a delightful walkable /bikeable life covering two work places and a school with reasonable bus support for further afield. My biggest pleasure is that the beautiful central city of Christchurch with the uplifting Ōtakaro promenade is a part of my daily life. Oh and the Grizzly bakery… I am most puzzled (not so much annoyed) that our life style would be considered somewhat radical for a family in Christchurch.
Xin: The New Lynn Transit-Oriented Development brings me pleasure due to its easy access to amenities and efficient transportation. However, the disconnection between the shopping mall and the train station, as well as the main office and residential areas within the TOD development, causes me annoyance.
George: I get real pleasure from landscape, water, greenery. On the painful, or frustrating, side are the diabolical hazards of getting from A to B as a pedestrian or cyclist.
Why do you think better urban design and the profession of being an urban designer can be a force for good?
Lisa: That’s easy, at its core urban design is about creating better places for people.
Ekin: How we live in the city and what we are exposed to regularly has a strong influence on how we feel physically and mentally as individuals and as communities. Making our physical environment function and feel better is highly likely to make us healthier and happier individuals and communities.
Xin: Creating walkable neighbourhoods, adapting to environmental challenges, designing vibrant streets for people, fostering harmonious relationships between buildings and spaces, and establishing well-located, modern, and dense residential areas are key factors in building a sustainable and enjoyable future. Urban designers play a crucial role in bringing these elements together to positively shape communities and urban environments.
George: There is an ethical responsibility in creating the conditions for better wellbeing, but there are lots of examples of urban design, partially with a public health lens, that are not good.
If you were appointed New Zealand’s Urban Design Champion what three changes would be at the top of your agenda and why?
Lisa: The key challenges in our urban environments – including climate mitigation and adaptation, housing affordability, building compact urban form, improving access to more sustainable transport options for all of our community, enhancing the quality and usability of our public realm, and ultimately building resilience into our urban areas – all require collaborative action and partnership amongst built environment professionals, politicians and the local community. So I’m going to answer this by not answering it, because in my view a Champion needs to bring all of those parties together to come up with solutions – in the knowledge that there will be disagreement, discomfort and discord from challenging others to work together.
Ekin: I’d only have one priority: Finding (quickly!) better ways to live in a symbiotic relationship with the ecosystem of our beautiful planet when we shape our physical environment. Achieving that in today’s NZ cities requires:
- better, wider and deeper collaboration and discourse than ever, between professionals, decision makers and very importantly, the general public.
- better transport options
- more of us living closer to each other WITH care and attention to quality of life (sun, shade, proximity to services, opportunities for privacy and social interaction)
Xin: My top three priorities would be:
- Climate Change Response: Implementing strategies to address climate change through green infrastructure and sustainable practices.
- Density: Encouraging planned urban density to accommodate growth while minimizing sprawl.
- Vibrant Centres and Walkable Environments: Creating lively urban centres and walkable neighbourhoods to foster community interaction and economic activity.
George: I’d go for four:
- Easing off some of our zoning restrictions to enable more small businesses, cafes etc in residential areas and to make suburbs less dormitory.
- Statutory tree protection and a raft of incentives to facilitate more tree planting.
- Formation of an agency dedicated to Passenger Transport, to focus on people moving above freight moving.
- High capacity, high quality public transport in tandem with all new development.
Can you recommend any cities or books or projects etc that have been special points of inspiration on your urban design journey, or that are on your wish-list to visit or read or do?
Lisa: There are so many cities all around the globe that I have lived in or enjoyed spending time in throughout New Zealand, North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. If I had to name a few I’d start with Paris, because of the influence of Baron Haussmann – witnessed in the parks and boulevards. Next would be Barcelona with the incredible grid plan of Cerdà and the crazy architecture of Gaudi, and then New York thanks to the early skyscrapers indelible mark of Robert Moses in the bridges and parks. These are all incredible cities that I have spent a lot of time in and enjoyed getting around on foot, by bicycle and by their amazing public transport systems. Singapore is also amazing in that it has focused not only on being a hub for travellers but also has an incredible focus on sustainability. I would really love to visit Baku, I flatted with an Azeri while in London and would love to see the medieval old city and new city that has evolved post Soviet times in particular Zaha Hadid’s buildings and the product of urban masterplanning.
Ekin: Every city I have ever been to has been an inspiration to me and makes a difference to how I thought ever after. I usually fall in love with the historic cores, often seduced by the human scale and the richness of texture. Two cities that are the most fascinating to me are Istanbul and Buenos Aires. In these cities both the physical and the societal context are complex, dynamic and full of beauty, which you can just about breathe in the air when you are walking on the street.
Xin: Two particular books I think have been instrumental in elucidating the concept of urban design and illuminating the roles that urban designers undertake are:
- 101 Things I Learned® in Urban Design School by Matthew Frederick and Vikas Mehta
- Urban Design Compendium by Llewelyn-Davies (firm)
George: I’d highly recommend two transport books: Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit and Transport for Suburbia | Beyond the Automobile Age by Paul Mees. Also How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand.