A recent workshop in Melbourne featured presentations by the three universities – Melbourne, RMIT and Deakin – that are teaching urban design. The workshop was organised for Urban Design Forum through Deakin University and hosted by RMIT University. The intent was to bring together professionals and, for the first time, the three Victorian universities that have urban design programs which produce (on graduation) professionals that may refer to themselves as urban designers. The Office of the State Government Architect made comments as a client advisor, and the session was chaired by Rod Duncan, with an introduction and commentary by Jim Holdsworth.
Urban design skills – what are they? What is needed for great outcomes? One definition of urban design is that it is where the disciplines of architecture, planning and landscape architecture overlap. The Venn diagram of three circles, one for each profession, each of which overlap with the others but also overlap where all three intersect.
We frequently cite the medieval villages of Europe – places with an urban structure around communal open spaces – a piazza or a church forecourt, but with meandering streets and alleys creating a sense of enclosure and intrigue, of vistas opening up and of closing off, of glimpses into private courtyards, of small scale spaces where people engage, of windows and front doors and an active interface between the public realm and the private domain.
This is good design, as it provides a high quality public environment, builds a sense of community. But there weren’t any urban designers involved!
Melbourne has a comparable example in its network of lanes and arcades of the CBD, which is becoming not only one of our city’s greatest drawcards, but the product of the pattern of private development. These arcades and lanes are popular largely because of the success of the interface between the public space and the shop, the cafe, the graffiti wall, the design detailing, in other words – the private realm. Again, there weren’t any urban designers involved!
The Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development has published an Urban Design Charter for Victoria. The Charter is described as ‘a commitment by the Victorian Government to make cities and towns in Victoria more liveable through good urban design”. In the Charter, urban design is defined as ‘The practice of shaping the physical features and making high-quality connections between places and buildings for the enjoyable and safe activity of people’.
In Britain, the Urban Design Alliance (whose members represent many private and government entities involved in urban development) defines urban design as ‘The collaborative process of shaping the setting for life in cities, towns and villages’ and as ‘The art of making places work’. Interestingly, it acknowledges that urban design is an ‘art’, that is, that it includes elements of the qualitative; of an innate skill and passion, and is not just hard-nosed and hard-edged, but contains some flair and creativity.
At the workshop, Kim Dovey from Melbourne University offered: ‘Urban Design doesn’t have boundaries…it is not a profession but an amalgam of many skills…it is multi-scalar, embracing a range from broad principles to fine-grain design…it is about decisions with long-term consequences’. Beau Beza from RMIT agreed: ‘Urban Design spans from a concept to a built outcome’.
John Rollo from Deakin felt that urban design is about regions, as well as cities and towns, and that urban designers ‘need to be able to respond to needs of industry, government, community…to work in a team…to have the ability to draw concepts, to think with a pen in hand’.
Workshop attendees offered many comments. Standout remarks included: ‘rather than a Venn diagram, urban design is better envisaged as the centre of a multi-petalled daisy (thanks to Peter Richards), with the urban designer as the ‘conductor of the orchestra’ of many other professions’; ‘these three institutions offer different courses in terms of structure and content, appealing to different candidates seeking different outcomes’; ‘we need to be concerned about the privatisation of the public realm’; ‘we must be able to respond to the urbanisation of third world countries’; ‘courses must teach people how to continue learning more after their qualification.