note: this post also appears on Medium, here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the ideal urban design studio looks like. Not just because I’m interested in urban design, but also because I’m headed out into the professional world in search of a job. I’d like to get a job at the perfect urban design studio. What is that studio like?
The ideal urban design studio…
uses design as a means to an end
In my opinion, the ideal urban design studio does not churn out blueprint plans. For this studio, the master plan is dead.
A traditional design/development cycle.
Traditionally, a city or other organization doing a project would tell the studio what they want, their budget, legal considerations, et cetera. The studio goes to work, makes a brilliant plan, and it gets built. The plan is the goal. If it is not built, or is built differently, the project is not as brilliant. Maybe it even fails.
In today’s world, I think it’s much more important to think about urban design as a means to a end, not the end itself. The end goal is something more along the lines of: “create housing for older people in a way that they can still participate in society without feeling left out.” Or: “revitalize a shopping district that has gotten fewer customers over the past years.”
The key is to think about what happens after the plan is built. The ideal urban design studio asks: “How do people live in this place?” “How can we make sure that, even if they leave and new people come in, this area stays attractive and true to itself?” “How do stores keep attracting customers?”
The actual design is then the answer to that question. This makes it much more flexible. Perhaps, during the design phase, a certain element is found out not to work. For instance, a certain type of tree that looks great, may not retain enough water. No worries, we can use another type of tree, as long as we still answer the question.
does not have all the expertise
The ideal urban design studio does not have to be big. In fact, a small studio can offer many advantages over a big studio, because it is much more nimble and flexible. It does not need to have an expert on fire safe construction, because not every project will need this person. More realistically, not everyone in the office will have to go and learn about fire safe construction. They can concentrate on what they do best: urban design.
Should a project call for an expert, then the studio knows where to find these experts. They can be called in on a project-by-project basis. The ideal urban design studio has meaningful connections with other studio’s, companies, or even just freelance consultants. If a project needs a fire safe construction expert, the ideal urban design studio will know where to find them.
The benefit is mutual. This approach frees up time for the outside consultants to focus on what they do best, rather than having to be part of urban design projects that do not require their expertise. Moreover, whoever hired the studio, won’t have to pay for people they do not need. Each project will have the right (number of) people for the right job.
This one may sound like an open door. Perhaps it is, so I won’t waste a lot of words here. The ideal urban design studio employs people from all kinds of backgrounds. Urban design is different all across the world—even the difference between close neighbors Belgium and the Netherlands are huge. Working with a diverse set of people ensures a varied mix of perspectives and that is valuable in any creative field.
makes their own work
Any urban designer worth their salt cares about the built environment and wants to be a force of positive change. That’s one reason why it’s important that a studio does not sit around waiting to be assigned a project. Another good reason is simply that sometimes work can be hard to come by, so it’s better to create it yourself.
A traditional development cycle, showing different actors in different phases.
In a traditional setting, whenever a developer has developed an area and sold it, their responsibilities end. Their goal is to sell the project, what happens after that sale is not their problem. The urban design studio was most likely involved in this process, during the planning phase. However, our ideal urban design studio cares very much about what happens after the properties have been sold.
To make sure that a project is not only sold, but sold to people who really want to live there, the studio could initiate the project itself. What I’m talking about is known in Dutch as particulier collectief opdrachtgeverschap (CPO) or in German as a Baugemeinschaft. (In Germany, and other countries where it’s more common to build your own house, these projects are more common.) In a project like this, a group of people gets together to build their own houses, and often thereby design their own neighborhood. There are companies that exist solely to guide people along the steps of these projects. They find a like-minded group of people and then work with them to create their perfect house.
There’s no reason that an urban design studio couldn’t initiate a project like this. In fact, it should. The studio has expertise in many areas—they have knowledge of people’s housing preferences and know how to design an attractive street, to name just a few. This makes them both good at finding the right people, as well as able to create the best possible design for their needs. The studio also has connections to all kinds of experts in different areas, who can be brought in on the project when needed. Initiating a project kills two birds with one stone: you create your own work, which makes a studio more independent; plus the project will be sold to people who really care about it and cannot wait to live there, work there, or use it otherwise.
There can by many variations on this theme. Obviously, housing is not the only area in which it can be done. The key factor is that the studio finds the group of people, or businesses, or whoever else is the future inhabitant or tenant and works with them to create a design that answers their needs. (Actually, they can even be current inhabitants or tenants in an area in need of redevelopment.)
does not know what a blank slate is
The last characteristic is, luckily, another short one. The ideal urban design studio does not work with a blank slate. In today’s world, especially in western Europe, where population growth is often close to zero or even below, not many brand new neighborhoods are being developed. Let alone entire new towns. Urban design work is less and less development, rather redevelopment. But even in the case of an entire new neighborhood there is always a context to respond to.
Masdar city. Image from Foster & partners.
So whenever I see images of projects such as Masdar city, I have to scratch my head and wonder if I would really want to work on such a project. Even deserts are not blank slates and I’m not sure this city is the best way to respond to such a context.
Of course, the ideal urban design studio has many more qualities. It’s full of nice people, has a kickass office, and, of course, pays very generously. But the concepts I’ve outlined here are what sets the studio apart and make it the most progressive, future proof, kickass urban design studio.
(Oh and… if you work at a studio like this: are you hiring?)