Urban design and the Sunshine City 

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FREQUENTLY, we have heard of the city fathers’ intentions of making Harare ‘a world-class city’. 

This flies in the face of the forfeiture of Harare’s urban design that has been replaced by numerous unserviced areas.

Unlike architecture, which focuses on the design of individual buildings, urban design is an inter-disciplinary subject that unites all the built environment professions, including urban planning, architecture, landscape as well as civil and municipal engineering. 

It is common for professionals in all these disciplines to practice urban design, which is the process of designing and shaping cities, towns and villages. It deals with the larger scale of groups of buildings, streets and public spaces, whole neighbourhoods and districts, including entire cities, with the goal of making urban areas functional, attractive and sustainable for the people.

Urban design demands a good understanding of a wide range of subjects, from physical geography, through to social science, and an appreciation for disciplines, such as real estate development, urban economics, political economy and social theory. It is about making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric.

It draws together the many strands of place-making, environmental stewardship, social equity and economic viability into the creation of places with distinct beauty and identity.

Urban design is derived from, but transcends, planning and transportation policy, architectural design, development economics, engineering and landscape design. It draws these and other strands together, creating a vision for an area and then deploying the resources and skills needed to bring the vision to life.

Urban design theory deals primarily with the design and management of public spaces, which is to say the ‘public environment’, ‘public realm’ or ‘public domain’ and the way public places are experienced and used.

Public space includes the totality of spaces used freely on a day-to-day basis by the general public; such as streets, malls, market squares, plazas, parks and public infrastructure.

Some aspects of privately-owned spaces, such as building facades or domestic gardens, also contribute to public space and are, therefore, also considered by urban design theory.

While urban design and urban planning are both closely related, they differ in two respects. Firstly, urban design can be argued to relate to the proactive design of urban areas, whereas the urban planning tends, in practice, to focus on the management of private development through established regulatory planning methods and programmes as well as other statutory development controls, although the extent to which this is actually the case will depend on the systems of urban governance and development management in place.

Secondly, urban design focuses on the design, quality, character and appearance of places, including buildings and the spaces between them.

Urban planning, on the other hand, also relates to the uses to which those places and spaces are put and the ways in which they relate to each other.

Again, the distinction between the two highly interrelated activities will depend on the local legislative context.

Although the term ‘urban design’ dates from the mid-20th Century, urban design has been practised throughout history.

Ancient examples of carefully planned and designed cities exist in Asia, Africa, Europe as well as the Americas, and are particularly well-known within classical Chinese, Roman and Greek cultures.

European Medieval cities are often, erroneously, regarded as examples of un-designed or ‘organic’ city development.

There are many examples of considered urban design in the Middle Ages. The development of MaDzimbahwe is testimony to our ancestors’ knowledge and understanding of the design and planning of spaces

The early development of modern urban design in Europe is associated with the Renaissance. Spanish colonial cities were often planned, as were some towns settled by other imperial cultures.

These sometimes embodied utopian ambitions as well as aims for functionality and good governance. In the Baroque period, the design approaches developed in French formal gardens, such as Versailles, were extended into urban development and redevelopment.

In this period, when modern-day professional specialisations did not exist, urban design was undertaken by people with skills in areas as diverse as architecture, astronomy, garden design, surveying, sculpture and military engineering. 

But, in the 18th and 19th centuries, urban design was most closely linked with surveyors (engineers) and architects. Planning and architecture went through a paradigm shift at the turn of the 20th Century.

The industrialised cities of the 19th Century had grown at a tremendous rate, with the pace and style of building largely dictated by private business concerns.

Around 1900, theorists began developing urban planning models to mitigate the consequences of the industrial age by providing citizens, especially factory workers, with healthier environments.

Urban planning became professionalised at this period, with input from visionary thinkers as well as from the practical-minded infrastructure engineers and local authorities combining to produce new design templates for consideration.

The first official consideration of these new trends was embodied in the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 that compelled local authorities to introduce coherent systems of town planning across the country using the principles of ‘garden city’, and to ensure that all housing construction conformed to specific building standards.

Following this Act, surveyors, architects, civil engineers, lawyers and others began working together within local authorities in the UK to draw up schemes for the development of land and the idea of town planning as a new and distinctive area of expertise began to be formed.

The introduction of automobiles was an important influence on the design of urban development in the 20th Century, and the rise of the ‘urban design’ movement can be seen in part as a reaction to the adverse impact of car-use and car oriented design.

Various current movements in urban design seek to create sustainable design environments with long-lasting structures, buildings and a great ‘liveability’ for its inhabitants. The Charter of New Urbanism is an approach for successfully reducing environmental impacts by altering the built environment to create and preserve smart cities which support sustainable transport. Residents in compact urban neighbourhoods drive fewer kilometres and have significantly lower environmental impacts across a range of measures, compared to those living in sprawling suburbs.

The concept of Circular Flow Land Use Management has also been introduced in Europe to promote sustainable land use patterns that strive for compact cities and a reduction of greenfield land taken by urban sprawl.

Urban design may encompass the preparation of design guidelines and regulatory frameworks, or even legislation to control development as well as advertising, among others and in this sense overlaps with urban planning. It may encompass the design of particular spaces and structures and, in this sense, overlaps with architecture, landscape architecture, highway engineering and industrial design. It may also deal with ‘place management’ to guide and assist the use and maintenance of urban areas and public spaces.

Dr Tony M. Monda is an independent researcher. He holds a PhD and a DBA in visual art and heritage studies.E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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