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Book Review: "Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People," by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, and Oliver Gillham

To the credit of the erudite authors, their sketch of urban design brings levels of political, sociological, and architectural analysis together in a readable synthesis.

By Norman Weinstein
September 17, 2009

Urban Design is an extraordinarily complex subject to write about. I’m looking at my opening sentence, wondering if such a truism need be stated in order to fairly assess the value of this worthy and infuriating book. I’ll stick with that assertion because Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) offers a very thoughtful and worthwhile and simplified overview of the (overwhelmingly Euro-American) history of the key paradigms, principles, and process of urban design. It breezes by a reader in the first 100 pages. Think of a 21st-century animated film equivalent (in “Blade Runner” tempo, hyper-cyber-presto) of Lewis Mumford’s The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. If you want an overwhelmingly complex history of urban design, don’t look here.


On the plus side, I can’t think of a more critically valuable (albeit simplified) overview of city forms in this compressed treatment. To the credit of the erudite authors, their sketch of urban design brings levels of political, sociological, and architectural analysis together in a readable synthesis. Their apparent biases – pro-New Urbanism, anti-iconic Postmodernism – never interfere with their acute awareness of key themes (like how to build cohesive sustainable communities by recognizing the need for multi-disciplinary experts to listen carefully to stakeholders). The first 100 pages could make a terrific introductory reading for an urban design course.


But one caveat needs to be mentioned. “Placemaking for People,” the book’s catchy subtitle, is defined as an optimal fit of people and place. “Optimal” is defined by the authors as energy-efficient public transportation, serviceable and responsive to the economic and social needs of an increasingly diverse society. All commendable objectives. But remarkably little concrete information is given in the book’s supersonic overview of urban design explaining in-depth why so many U.S. urban design programs have failed in the past century. This is definitely an upbeat reading experience – bless the authors for that – but I would have enjoyed a far more comprehensive overview of the history of urban design that would have given food for thought about how and why the best laid plans for people/place fell by the wayside. What were the various interpretations of lessons learned from urban designs gone wrong so that the same design errors aren’t repeated in the future?


The book’s second half consists of 70 case studies of projects that have won the American Institute of Architects’ Honor Awards for Urban Design. The authors frame the studies effectively with their concise summaries of what key urban design principles and paradigms came into play with each project, a useful counterpoint to the sometimes pretentious and often vague AIA Jury comments.


Bottom line: read the book’s first half as a stimulating discussion of the history of city design. Pick and choose the case studies in the text’s second half that seem useful. For now, the best text on urban design may come into being from your walking the long way home.


Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record and The Christian Science Monitor. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably. You can reach him at


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WORDS THAT BUILD: Introduce Words that "Float" into the Flow of Communications with Clients 
Tip #18: Replace prescriptive words and phrases "etched in stone" with language reflecting a collaborative project in flux.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Work with Clients to Develop Plans That Place Human/Spatial Relationships First 
Tip #17: Shape dialogues with clients to catalyze designs promoting clear meanings of human relationships in proposed spaces.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Faster! Deeper! Broader! 
Tip #16: How to balance high-speed communication with in-depth communication.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Translate Images Into Touching Performances 
Tip #15: Cultivate communication with clients that translates architectural imagery into experience at their fingertips.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Emphasize Words with Lasting Resonance 
Tip #14: Cluster symbolic and mythically-charged keywords in communication with clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Re-invent Green Communication 
Tip #13: Try the spectacular 2-step program to cut fat and reduce telltale signs of greenwash.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Taking Advantage of Interruptions in Architectural Communication 
Tip #12: Cogent communicators exploit opportunities offered by interruptions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Faceting Architectural Communication 
Tip #11: Effective communication evolves out of cross-reflective details. 


WORDS THAT BUILD: Use Space Creatively When Designing Your Client Communications 
Tip #10: Use paragraph spacing in writing and pauses in conversation to promote "out of the box" thinking.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Making Your Client's Contradictions Productive 
Tip #9
: Work with your clients' contradictions to discover possible solutions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Initiate Conversations with Designs that Engage Your Clients 
Tip #8: Write dialogues engaging materials and processes with clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Creating a Site Analysis That's Out of Sight 
Tip #7: Write a site analysis using words referring to senses beyond sight.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme
Tip #6: Master a communications tool that generates copious variations on your theme.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures 
Tip #5: Recognize the key vocabulary shaping your professional practice and share those keywords with your clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction 
Tip #4: See your writing as a navigational aid so your design intent clearly comes through to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication 
Tip #3: Use language that playfully enhances the flow of design intentions between you and your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis 
Tip #2: Use rhythmic accents to create a persuasive story to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges 
Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.




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