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Every 60 years or so, the question of “urban design” finds itself back in vogue again, in response to demands for better urban quality, for improved sustainability, sociability, urbanity, or for aesthetic and artistic reasons. This was the case in 1889 when Camillo Sitte introduced three-dimensional design to urban planning in his work Der Städtebau. Or later, in 1956, when Josep Lluís Sert organised an international conference at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, officially launching the term “urban design”. And more recently, when the United Nations New Urban Agenda, 2016-2030, identified “urban design” as one of the cornerstones of its proposal for furthering sustainable development and a better quality of life.

The majority of recent reappraisals of urban design and its history (Saunders and Krieger 2009; Carmona and Tiesdel 2002) identify Sert’s 1956 Conference as birthplace of the discipline. But is it possible to talk about “urban design” without going back to its roots, at the turn of the 19th century? Is it possible to understand and respond to contemporary issues and challenges, such as sustainability and urban quality, without some reflection on the origins of what we call “urban design”?

Building a Genealogy of Urban Design and creating a GUDesign network is timely. We believe that a number of contemporary issues (including the worldwide crisis in architecture and planning; rising environmental risks and the need for sustainable and resilient solutions; the call for quality design and quality of life; or even the need to overcome Eurocentric approaches) may find answers in the study and rediscovery of the urban design legacies of each country, particularly in relation to local traditions and the use of history. With this purpose and in light of the interest expressed by a large number of colleagues, May 15th, 2020 saw the launch, under the auspices of the Italian Association of Urban History – AISU International, of an international and interdisciplinary network on the genealogy of urban design.

The aim of the network is to investigate the history and “birth” of this disciplinary area, its transformation in the 1950s, and academic methodologies in contemporary urban design worldwide. Its ultimate goal is to promote a comparative historical analysis between theoretical approaches and realized projects in order to identify best practices that can support proactive undertakings in the future.

A Genealogy of Urban Design-GUDesign Network
A brief introduction

Urban design is a term coined in the mid-1950s by Lluís Sert at the now famous Harvard conference which he put together. In this sense, the birth of urban design (as an academic/professional field) is largely related to the historical conditions of post WWII urbanism and theories of relative economic development. It was assumed for a long period to be the starting point of a new attention to urban form and the quality of the built environment, as an alternative to the CIAM tradition.

But there is a much longer history, with a greater multiplicity of roots, to the field of urban design, when understood in its broader, city-building, sense: a history that goes back to the origins of urban life and urban form. Likewise, there is also a shorter history to be traced, if we take, as a starting point for its contemporary manifestation, the industrialization and urbanization of the19th century; a period that also saw the introduction of town planning, as a distinctive disciplinary field.

Yet another strong tradition is to be found within efforts to trace town planning history: this lies in the debate and contributions around the concept of urban aesthetics and the artistic approach to city building that began with Camillo Sitte in the late 1890s and re-emerged throughout the 20th century on multiple occasions. These range from Raymond Unwin in the 1910s, Werner Hegemann and Elbert Peets in the 1920s, the Townscape movement in the 1940s and 50s, Colin Rowe’s contextualism in the 1960s, up to the new Traditionalism and new Urbanism in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively.

Urban design has been extremely versatile: besides its involvement with urban aesthetics and public space, it has been hybridized with conservation and heritage issues, with urban morphology and the redesign of historic centres, with environmental and landscape planning, with the vernacular, with place making and regeneration, sustainability and resilience… you name it (and urban design will be there)! The UN Urban Agenda 2030 even considers urban design as one of the pillars for sustainable growth. With chameleon adaptability, urban design is evergreen and always present, creating new alliances, revealing new aspects; difficult to pin down, always elusive. “A definition of ‘urban design’ as both process and product remains problematic” writes Alexander Cuthbert in 2003 in the introduction to his edited volume Designing Cities: Critical Readings in Urban Design.

Genealogical research on urban design aims to trace the different branches back to their roots; to contextualize them in their chronological, but also cultural and socio-political, milieux; to study them comparatively. This is research in search of identities, family groups and roots.

Our Genealogy will promote the following approaches:

  • Tracking lineages with respect to terms, concepts, schools of thought, legacies, national traditions, significant personalities, institutions
  • Exploring the parallel stories of actors, of their plans and theories
  • Following the migration of urban design ideas both through teaching (see for example the dozens of architects from Brazil and other Latin American nations who, having studied in Paris, brought the Beaux-Arts approach back to their home countries); and through planning (as for example through international planning competitions, exhibitions, conferences)
  • Tracing the creation and dissemination of ideas and practices through the internationalization of town planning and architectural movements as: i) in the International Town Planning movement (as Giorgio Piccinato called it in his 1974 book, La costruzione dell’urbanistica), initiated with the Art Publique conferences (Dresden 1904) and later formalized with the Berlin and London exhibitions (1910), that disseminated the artistic city building approach, worldwide; ii) in 1930s, the CIAM or International Congress of Modern Architecture; iii) after WWII, the Urban International approach − as Tracy Neumann called her Ford Foundation 2017 project "The Urban International: Design and Development from the Marshall Plan to Microfinance".

All the above are among the approaches our Genealogy will follow in order to reconstruct an urban design history capable of showing the plural and sometimes even contradictory nature of the past.

There is a gap in research of this kind. At the time of writing, although new urban design readers are constantly being published and there are ever-increasing numbers of historical investigations of the various above-mentioned approaches and urban design expressions,

- the subject in its complexity is still relatively unexplored

- its knowledgebase is not systematically documented or comparatively studied

- and its impact − the impact of historical urban design knowledge − on the challenges we are currently confronted with still remains unknown.

A genealogical history of urban design is therefore necessary, useful, and also timely:

  • if we want to avoid the repetition, today in this new era of globalization, of the models used by colonialist powers and in post-World War II development
  • if we want to offer new interpretive tools, in order to respond to the emerging issues:
    - of public health;
    - of the vexed question of sustainable development;
    - and to free contemporary urban design from historicism and a Eurocentric worldview.

Text of presentation given on the occasion of the launch of GUDesign network, 15 May 2020, by Heleni Porfyriou, who promoted the initiative and coordinates the network.

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