Urban Design Matters

Cheyenne, Wyoming

by Matt Ashby, AICP CUD, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Urban design may be a term that’s unfamiliar to many people, yet it very much influences how you live your daily life. Many of the design principles are things you probably notice, but might not have been able to articulate as to why one space feels better than another. Our senses are constantly perceiving our surroundings, noting the presence of a well placed shade tree on a hot day, or the shelter an awning provides during a sudden downpour. These are components of urban design that together, with other building blocks, can create livable places that people return to time and time again.

Our main streets developed using design principles that were geared toward human comfort, creating walkable retail districts where the streets were an integral part of the place. They were the place to stroll, encounter friends or watch buskers, grab a bite to eat, or watch the world go by. The ingredients for successful places are relatively easy to identify, but in recent decades the recipe has been lost in the fray of competing standards that dilute our top shelf spaces.

After years of subliminally instilling feng shui on my kids by harassing them about the dangers of leaving their dresser drawers open (with the explanation that it gives their room ‘bad qi’), my seven year old recently commented on a streetscape I was admiring. With that sardonic eye-roll patented by pre-tween princesses across America, she whispered out the side of her mouth to her aunt, “Daddy probably thinks this place has good qi.” Indeed, the street had interesting storefronts to gaze through, neon signs, and reclaimed parking lot turned cafe plaza. It had the right mix of elements to be a breathtaking place. That, or it was the 100-degree heat topped off with Nebraska humidity. Either way, I wanted to spend my time there.

Over time, the art of building of great places gradually slipped through our collective fingers as specialization took over, directing professionals to focus on the role of architect, engineer, landscape architect, or planner.  Lost is our focus on the space between which knits together urban places, preventing them from becoming disembodied vignettes. Urban Design as a distinctive practice has taken root over the past several decades to help weave back together our over-specialized professions and return to big picture placemaking. The specialty of an urban designer is to occupy the overlap between all of these professions to ensure they are working together to create memorable geographic stage-sets.

Although the term has barely been around long enough to join AARP, several schools offer master’s level degrees in Urban Design (including my alma mater, the University of Colorado). Despite the principles rooted in classical city designs represented in Greek and Roman cultures, there are relatively few professionals who specialize in this discipline. Bringing attention to this unique blend of talents, the American Planning Association through their certification arm is now offering practitioners the opportunity to prove their Urban Design chops and elevate the profile of this jack-of-all-trades specialty.

Karen Hundt, Director of the Chattanooga Urban Design Group and part of the team that developed the Advanced Specialty Certification describes why she feels Urban Design is important. She notes, “design was very much a part of city planning in the early 20th century when architects like Daniel Burnham were involved and the City Beautiful movement emphasized design. As the planning profession evolved, it became more specialized. But in a way, AICP CUD brings us back around by elevating the connection between the design and planning disciplines.”

I recently finished reading the novel Paper Towns by John Green, unaware of the impending release of a film adaptation dropped last weekend. The story takes us through the lives of two suburban youth lamenting their shallow lives set in a fictional subdivision. Maybe a jaded world-view influenced my interpretation of the narrative, but as the characters are searching for their own personal authenticity beyond their unbearably bland two-dimensional constructs, I couldn’t help but relate the story to society’s current thirst for meaningful places. Malls are drying up, replaced with lifestyle knock-offs of actual places people connect with. The interesting thing is that these copycats are getting the details right, despite their inorganic sprouting adjacent to interstate interchanges. Will this new generation of main street become retail’s not-so-objectionable Levittown in two generations?

The test of time is the ultimate challenge for all designers. Getting the pieces right and setting your creation free to weather the years is the only way our spaces can gain the street cred they might deserve. Let’s give the places our century is building a fighting chance at evading extinction by designing them well in the first place. Or we can choose to build disposable, Snapchat cities; here one moment, forgotten the next.

Matt Ashby, AICP CUD, has helped cultivate a vision for Wyoming’s Capitol City while spearheading innovative endeavors like the West Edge brownfields revitalization project as the Planning Services Director for the City of Cheyenne. In October, Ashby will join Ayres Associate’s Cheyenne office. He serves as a member of the Western Planning Resources Board.

Published in the October/November 2015 Journal

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