Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Peter was originally published in November 2016.
I’m not an urban designer or an architect – economists are famously bad at that sort of thing – but I do pay attention to the way places are built. Some places work well for people, and some places don’t. That matters.
A few weeks ago, I spotted a few interesting conversations (in Transportblog and on Twitter) about how we approach urban design issues. I thought they were worth highlighting as they pointed out some important distinctions and challenges we face in pursuing good design.
First: in a response to a study on the health value of architectural features that encourage social contact (eg porches, stoops, etc) that Kent posted in a recent Sunday reading, reader TimR made an astute comment about the need to get better at measuring outcomes from urban design. Good design has a value – but it’s often misidentified or left unmeasured:
That kind of hard data around Hispanic elders’ health needs to be gathered and put squarely in front of people like the Productivity Commission.
Every time I read nonsense about the “cost of aesthetics”, this is the kind of outcome I think about – the community and health benefits that only result from deliberate design choices. I’ll bet the costs to the health care and social support systems from that 2.7x worse physical function are not insubstantial, and much higher than the cost of building those architectural features.
Built environment design is so much more than how something looks, but as a society we have debased it to an optional nicety, and claim it is entirely subjective. Reality is, when we choose to examine the evidence properly there are always rich and measurable consequences flowing from design.
In the Auckland context, it’s a problem that we stripped out _so many_ design elements from the UP. Yes, we should make planning faster + more certain; but street-frontage controls clearly have a substantial long term economic cost according to the evidence above – and that’s just one specific outcome being measured. Accumulate all the benefits of getting architecture right in an urban setting, and the cost benefits could be staggering. There’s a reason places like hospitals now focus strongly on design outcomes.
My take is that it’s essential to have basic metric-based district plan Rules that control street interfaces, because they’re the heart of private-public engagement, they’re easy to define, are low or no-cost (eg limiting fence heights, putting entrance doors in the right place), and not at all difficult to comply with. These are not esoteric high-brow aesthetic design features that require expert opinion as part of a consent! Based on the evidence above, the ideologues just shoot their own economic theory in the foot when they force these controls out.
As Tim points out, we need to distinguish between design and aesthetics, which are two very different concepts. As I understand it, good design is, first and foremost, about functionality. If it looks good but doesn’t work well, it’s not well-designed.
Another way of saying this is that good design has objective and measurable benefits, while the benefits of aesthetics are subjective, or “in the eye of the beholder”. Health outcomes are a good start – well-designed urban places tend to enable and encourage walking and cycling and encourage incidental social contact between neighbours and passers-by.
One example I’ve been thinking about recently is the Owen G Glenn Building at the University of Auckland. While it looks impressively monumental from the outside – especially from the motorway, as in the view below – it’s unpleasant to be in. Lecture halls and classrooms are hard to find, the hallways often feel like they’re closing in on you, and, paradoxically, all the common spaces feel cavernous and exposed. The building’s design provides me with a small, but occasionally decisive, inducement to stay away from talks or meetings being held there – a sign that the building is not supporting its educational mission.
Second, Twitter users and occasional Transportblog commenters Frank McRae and Stephen Davis made some interesting points about the same basic issue – how we distinguish between aesthetics and functionality. They were responding to this tweet critiquing the design of some apartments in Otahuhu:
— Ludo Campbell-Reid (@AklDesignChamp) September 23, 2016
Frank observed (fairly but a bit too acerbically) that buildings usually have a practical aim – to house people or provide space for businesses and other organisations. In that context, we should judge them on how well they meet housing needs, rather than fulfill subjective aesthetic goals:
no one makes these comments about single houses but somehow its always OK to sneer at apartments. This is part of the problem
— Big city mathematician (@FrankMcRae) September 23, 2016
Stephen had a more expansive take on the issue, pointing out that we need to be attentive to the overall urban context for buildings:
There's a sliding scale of how much you have a responsibility to give back to the aesthetics of your city via your building.
— hat enthusiast (@nzsd) September 23, 2016
He goes on to observe in a series of tweets that:
At the bottom are private houses, including apartments. At the top are public buildings and spaces. Commercial in the middle.
Unless your house is a tourist attraction – maybe you lobbied to make it a “special character” area – it’s not your job to make it pretty.
a good street increases the odds of people *wanting* to make aesthetically pleasing buildings next to it, too.
I’d say the vast majority of Auckland buildings are prettier than the streets they’re on already. Better than we deserve.
As an example:
hell, check out the street in front that building in Wellington. Who'd build St. Mark's Cathedral if they were next to that? pic.twitter.com/ywZQZL8U1P
— hat enthusiast (@nzsd) September 23, 2016
I think Stephen’s idea of a “sliding scale of responsibility” for place-making is a good one. Urban streets are the largest, most widespread, and most influential public spaces in a city. They set the context for what happens around them. If we want better urban design, and buildings that make us better off, we need to start with the street.
What do you think about the value of urban design?