prev icon toc icon next icon

An Urban Design Canon

Tony Lloyd-Jones and Marion Roberts

The notion that it is possible to formulate a canon of urban design begs many questions, not least of which is deciding what in the vast literature should be left out. While the works that we have selected are perhaps the most well known and obvious, it should always be remembered that the authors' ideas were formed within the context of a broader seam of literature which grows richer as time passes.

There are few general introductions to this wider body of work. David Gosling and Barry Maitland's Concepts of Urban Design is widely regarded as the best. Well illustrated, erudite in a non- academic way and with a concise and socially-orientated perspective on the wide variety of urban design issues, this work has not been revised since it was published in 1984 and is now sadly out of print. Geoffrey Broadbent's Emerging Concepts in Urban Space and Design is more current and approaches the topic in a systematic way, drawing on a clear philosophical framework. Far less visually effective than Gosling and Maitland, it nevertheless serves as a useful introductory catalogue of recent urban design theories. Finally and most recently, The CityReader by Richard LeGates and Frederic Stout is an excellent and comprehensive collection of excerpts from many of the most significant writings on urbanism from the mid- nineteenth century to the present day. As a taster for several of the works mentioned here, as well as for a wide range of planning and developmental, political and cultural perspectives on the city, this is recommended reading.

One of the guiding assumptions of urban design literature is that cities are beneficial: indeed this is argued cogently and clearly in Harley Sherlock's Cities are Good for Us and this book provides a fine initial text for those who wish to be convinced of the benefits of human beings living in close proximity to each other. Anti-urbanism is a theme which has run through twentieth century town planning but it was the impact of modernist town planning in the immediate post-war period which provided the impetus for some of the most influential and important urban design texts.

Jane Jacobs' attack on modernism in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: The Failure of Town Planning brought into focus the beneficial attributes of the nineteenth century industrial city. It is interesting to note that hers is, as Marshall Berman points out, the first'fully articulated women's view of the city' in the twentieth century (Berman 1983: 322). Jacob's book is a rich compendium of observations and analysis of the design, social usage and economies of cities.

Many current initiatives in urban regeneration and urban design take their inspiration from Jacobs'work, first published in 1961. Most recently, her ideas about mixed development and surveillance: ,eyes on the street', have seen a renaissance. Yet however rich, witty and useful her analysis, there remains a problem with her anecdotal, discursive approach. Whilst we might feel instinctively that many of her observations are correct, we do not know for sure whether they are absolute truths. Jacobs' lack of systematic elaboration in terms of scientific procedures forms a strong contrast to the next book on our list, Kevin Lynch's Image of the City.

Lynch has been such an important figure within the field of urban design that it is impossible to do justice to his life's work in a review article of this type. While a starting point might be Good City Form - a repository of good sense about the nature and history of urban form and criteria for good urban design - we have selected for the canon the work for which Lynch is best known. In The Image of the City , Lynch gives an account of a research project, carried out in three American cities.

The project resulted in the evolution of the concept of legibility, based on five elements which, Lynch contends, people use unconsciously to organise their 'mental maps' of an urban area (LA shown above). The concepts of legibility have proved invaluable as an analytic and design tool. The Image of the City helped give rise to a new science of human perception and behaviour in the city (progress in which has been usefully summarised in Walmsley's book, Urban Living: the individual in the city ). For urban designers, however, it is Lynch's innovative use of graphic notation to link quite abstract ideas of urban structure with the human perceptual experience which has proved the strongest legacy of this work, liberating them from the previous straightjacket of the physical masterplan.

Gordon Cullen's The Concise Townscape , first published in 1961, has probably had the greatest influence of any of the works mentioned here on a generation of British urban designers. Cullen re-worked the traditional artistic approach to city design found in the ideas of town planning precursors such as Camillo Sitte or Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin. Treating the urban landscape as a series of related spaces, he is best known for his concept of 'serial vision'. The power of his book, however, lies in the way in which Cullen is able to capture the poetic essence of the experience of urban form and space and give a vocabulary to the many practising designers who have used his concepts to inform their approach to urban design.

Perhaps the strongest criticism that can be Revealed against Cullen, or rather against the way that his ideas have been used, is that the aesthetic approach focuses too evidently on the Picturesque and has helped reinforce the sentimental, backward- looking tendencies of British urban design. This may have focused attention away from a forward-looking and socially relevant approach.

Christopher Alexander's A City is Not a Tree is an essay that was first published in 1965 but which has recently been re-printed in an edited form in the City Reader , mentioned above. Alexander's main contention is that the 'natural city' (as opposed to the ' artificial' city of the urban planner) is a place of organised complexity. In Alexander's view, planners and designers invariably think of urban structure in terms of simple tree-like hierarchies. In reality, cities consist of shared spaces of complex overlapping social networks organised as 'semi- lattices'. The impact of this essay owes much to Alexander's use of simple graphs and Venn diagrams to illustrate the basic concept of organised complexity.

Alexander's, Cullen's, Lynch's and Jacobs' work all, in different ways, emanated from the view of the city dweller Other books which might be included in an urban design canon emanate from more conventional sources, such as architectural history and theory. Aldo Rossi's Architecture of the City introduces readers to the notion that the city is a repository of culture, from the generations behind and for the generations to come. At the same time the book is not a plea for unthinking or superficial preservation; rather Rossi aims to look for the deep structure inherent in building types and to accommodate the changing, living uses of urban artefacts over time.

Rossi's book suffers from many of the same faults as Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter's Collage City in that they are both wordy, intellectually flashy and indulgently philosophical. The benefit of the Collage City is that is has the most marvellous illustrations, a wealth of ideas about the importance of traditional elements of urban spaces, a devastating and lucid argument against comprehensive development and it illustrates the huge importance of the figure ground diagram as a tool for analysis.

If much of urban design analysis and prescription has contained a robust defence of the historic forms of cities, it is important that such forms are understood within their historical context. This is where Spiro Kostofs two volumes The City Shaped and The City Assembled prove their worth. Both are sumptuously illustrated, scholarly, entertaining accounts of the key types and elements of city forms.

Looking to the future, the concerns of sustainability have become paramount. Peter Calthorpe's The Next American Metropolis contains both a manifesto for sustainable urban living at medium densities and a design manual for building new settlements with his concept of Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

We are aware of a number of other milestones in urban design thought that have had to omit from this selective list for reasons of space. Not here are the great architectural visions of the twentieth century city from Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright through to Team X and the technological utopias of Archigram and others in the 60s. Should not City. Rediscovering the Centre , William Whyte's splendid first hand insights on how people behave in urban spaces, or Venturi, Izenour and Scott Brown's manifesto of populist post modernism, Learning from Las Vegas , have been included? On the theme of the de-materialised city of signs and events, what of Bernard Tschumi's recent epistle of deconstruction, Event-cities ? In terms of current influence on design thinking, the archaism of Leon Krier might have been contrasted with the twenty first century vision of Rem Koolhaas, or the rather forbidding analytical approach of Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson in their Social Logic of Space . For these and other omissions, we can only beg the reader's indulgence.


The canon referred to in this article:

Alexander, C., A City is Not a Tree in Architectural Forum , vol. 122, no. 1 and 2, April/May 1965.

Broadbent, G., Emerging Concepts in Urban Space Design , London: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.

Calthorpe, P, The Next American Metropolis , New York: Princeton Architecture Press, 1993.

Cullen, G., The Concise Townscape , London: Architectural Press, 1961.

Gosling, D., Maitland, B., Concepts of Urban Design , London: Academy Editions, 1984.

Jacobs, J, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: The Failure of Town Planning , Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984 (first published 1961).

Kostof, S., The City Assembled . The Elements of Urban Form Through History , London: Thames& Hudson, 1992.

Kostof, S., The City Shaped., Urban Patterns and Meanings Throughout History , London: Thames& Hudson, 1991.

LeGates, R. and Stout, F, The City Reader , London: Routledge, 1996.

Lynch, K., The Image of the City , Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 1960.

Rossi, A., The Architecture of the City , Opposition Books, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1982.

Rowe, C. and Koetter, F, Collage City , MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1984.

Sherlock, H., Cities are Good for Us , London: Paladin, 1991.

Other books referred to in this article:

Berman, M., All That's Solid Melts into Air , London: Verso, 1984.

Hillier, B., Hanson, J., The Social Logic of Space , Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Lynch, K., Good City Form , Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1981.

Tschumi, B., Event-cities , Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994.

Venturi, FR., Izenour, S. and Scott Brown, D., Learning from Las Vegas , Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1977 (revised edition, first published 1972).

Walmsley, D. J, Urban Living. the individual n the city , Harlow: Longman Scientific and Technical, 1988.

Whyte, W., City. Re-discovering the Centre , New York: Doubleday, 1988.

prev icon toc icon next icon

go to Urban Design Group site ,  Urban Design Group