Public Places Urban Spaces
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Public Places Urban Spaces

The Dimensions of Urban Design

Matthew Carmona

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eBook - ePub

Public Places Urban Spaces

The Dimensions of Urban Design

Matthew Carmona

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About This Book

Public Places Urban Spaces provides a comprehensive overview of the principles, theory and practices of urban design for those new to the subject and for those requiring a clear and systematic guide. In this new edition the book has been extensively revised and restructured. Carmona advances the idea of urban design as a continuous process of shaping places, fashioned in turn by shifting global, local and power contexts. At the heart of the book are eight key dimensions of urban design theory and practice—temporal, perceptual, morphological, visual, social, functional—and two new process dimensions—design governance and place production.

This extensively updated and revised third edition is more international in its scope and coverage, incorporating new thinking on technological impact, climate change adaptation, strategies for urban decline, cultural and social diversity, place value, healthy cities and more, all illustrated with nearly 1, 000 carefully chosen images. Public Places Urban Spaces is a classic urban design text, and everyone in the field should own a copy.

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Urban Design Process: Shaping Better Places

This book adopts a broad understanding of urban design as ‘the process of shaping better places for people than would otherwise be produced’ (1.1). Four themes are emphasised in this definition: first, that urban design is for people; second, the significance of ‘place’, aka particular socio-physical localities in space; third, that urban design operates in the ‘real’ world, with its field of opportunity constrained by economic and political forces; and fourth the importance of design as a process.
1.1Better places for people.
That urban design is about shaping better places than would otherwise be produced is unashamedly and unapologetically a normative contention about what urban design should be rather than necessarily about what, at any point in time, it is. Urban design is therefore an ethical activity: first, in an axiological sense because it is intimately concerned with issues of values; and, second, because it is, or should be, concerned with particular values notably – as will be discussed – the achievement of place value.
This definition differs in one critical respect from that which underpinned the previous editions of this book, namely the substitution of the word ‘making’ for shaping’. Urban design is not about making new places from scratch – as we would a consumer good – but is instead always about shaping places that already exist. These places may or may not already have been developed, but will always be on, over or under an existing landscape, which – more often than not – will be part of an existing urban fabric. We shape and reshape places over time.
Introducing and defining urban design, this chapter is in four main parts. The first makes the contemporary case for urban design. The second seeks to build an understanding of the subject and how it is evolving. The third establishes an all-important process perspective on the subject that underpins the book, and the fourth discusses urban designers and urban design practice today.

The Need for Urban Design

The case for urban design is a two-sided coin. On the first side are the urban problems that can be avoided through a coherent approach to urban design. On the second are the benefits that can be delivered.

Avoiding Problems

Arguing in 1976 that urban design was still in its ‘prehistoric stage’, Bentley (1976) saw the emergence of express concerns for urban design originating in critiques of the urban environmental product; the process by which the built environment was brought about; and the professional role in its production. Each critique detected various kinds of fragmentation, a lack of concern for the totality and overall quality of the urban environment. These problems stemming from an absence of urban design remain today.
The poor quality of much of the contemporary built environment (globally) and the lack of concern for overall quality is a function of both the processes by which it comes about and the forces that act on and within those processes. This has been characterised as a system producing ‘developments' not ‘places' driven – rightly or wrongly – by the “predominantly conservative, short-term and supply-driven characteristics of the development industry” (Llewelyn-Davies 2000: 12).
Focusing on product rather than process but in a similar vein, Loukaitou-Sideris (1996: 91) discussed the absence of place quality in terms of ‘cracks', seeing the cracks as:
  • The gaps in the urban form, where overall continuity is disrupted
  • The residual spaces left undeveloped, underused or deteriorating
  • The physical divides that purposefully or accidentally separate social worlds
  • The spaces that development has passed by or where new development has led to fragmentation and interruption.
Many examples can be given, including car-oriented commercial strips lacking space for pedestrians, and walled or gated developments that “assert their privateness by defying any connection with the surrounding landscape”. Or, in the urban core “where corporate towers assert their dominance over the skies, but turn their back onto the city; where sunken or elevated plazas, skyways and roof gardens disrupt pedestrian activity; and where the asphalt deserts of parking lots fragment the continuity of the street” (Loukaitou-Sideris 1996: 91) (1.2).
1.2Cracks in the city.
These cracks are not a consequence of an absence of self-conscious design, but, are instead the result of processes that fail to consider the whole. Instead they focus on ‘designing’ the parts in isolation and/or on the basis of short-term goals or minority aspirations without considering the cumulative effect of decisions or the impact on society or the environment at large.
Poor quality urban environments can also arise through various social and economic trends such as those of homogenisation and standardisation; the trend towards individualism rather than collectivism; the privatisation of life and culture; and a retreat from and decline of the public realm. In the late 1980s, Jacobs and Appleyard (1987: 113) commented on how cities, especially American cities, had become privatised due to consumer society's emphasis on the individual and private sector. Escalated greatly by the spread of the car, these trends had resulted in a ‘new form of city’: “one of closed, defended islands with blank and windowless facades surrounded by wastelands of parking lots and fast-moving traffic. … The public environment of many American cities has become an empty desert, leaving public life dependent for its survival solely on planned formal occasions, mostly in protected internal locations” (Jacobs & Appleyard 1987: 113).
These processes remain rampant across the world as countries increasingly import extensive, car-dominated forms of development, although this should not imply that a more socially minded form of urbanism will necessarily, of itself, always deliver a more successful and equitable built environment. A case in point is the emergence in the first half of the twentieth century of Modernist ideas in architecture and planning driven both by horror at the squalor and slums of nineteenth-century industrial cities, and by perception of the start of a new age, the Machine Age, in which society would reap the benefits of new technology and industrialisation.
A number of distinct ideals flowed from this and informed Modernist concepts of what we now know as urban design (1.3), many of which led to an inherent anti-urban bias. More precisely, and for the noble reasons already established, Modernist thinking was opposed to traditional urban form, with Modernists seeking to derive new urbanistic principles: traditional, relatively low-rise streets, squares and urban blocks being eschewed in favour of rational, usually orthogonal, distributions of slab and point blocks, set in parkland and other open space. Rather than being enclosed by buildings, space would flow freely around buildings to allow light in and air to circulate (see Chapter 5).

1.3 Characteristics of Modernist Urban Design

Healthier Buildings

Medical knowledge developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided criteria for designing healthier buildings and environments, namely the need for light, air, sun and ventilation, and access to open spaces. It was argued that the best way to achieve this was to detach buildings from each other, orientate them towards the sun (rather than, as previously, towards the street), spread them out to allow light and air to flow freely around them, and build upwards where light and air was plentiful.
Public housing, Lisbon, here the buildings are set up on piloti to allow air and people to flow freely underneath. In less sunny climates the reality is often dark, dank and unloved spaces.

Functional Zoning

At the larger scale, the solution was to provide light and air by decongestion, lower residential densities and zoning housing away from industry – ‘those dark satanic mills'. This ‘functional zoning’ was a key element of the Charter of Athens, the report of the 1933 Congress of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) and the period's most influential manifesto. It proposed rigid functional zoning of city plans with green belts between areas reserved for different land uses. This was justified not only on environmental grounds but also because the resulting city would be more efficient and ordered, with new modes of transport tying the separated areas together.

City As Machine

The car and the urban highway were potent symbols of the new age. The leading Modernist in city design, the Swiss architect and planner, Le Corbusier, extolled the benefits and opportunities provided by cars. He wrote:
The Charter of Athens asserted that, because existing cities were ill-equipped to accommodate the car, ‘great transformations' were necessary, with conflicts resolved by segregating vehicles and pedestrians, and by the rejection of streets that slowed cars down. Cities were seen as machines for logically separating and ordering human movement and activities rather than places for people.

Architectural Design Philosophies

To express their function and functional requirements, buildings were designed from the inside-out responding only to their programme and functional requirements, for light, air, hygiene, aspect, prospect, recreation, movement and openness. Following their own internal logic without necessarily responding to the immediate urban context, they became sculptures or ‘objects-in-space’. Such buildings would also express their modernity
Reacting to nineteenth-century historicism, Modernism had an enthusiasm for the zeitgeist – the spirit of the age – and sought a radical break with the past. Differences, rather than continuities, with the past were emphasised, with the past seen as a hindrance to the future. Though largely rhetoric rather than reality, this was important in shaping attitudes and values (Middleton 1983: 730).
Opportunity and political will to develop Modernist ideas of urban space design came after 1945 with the reconstruction in Europe, later slum clearance programmes, and as a consequence of road-building schemes in all developed countries. Rather than incremental rehabilitation and infill development, comprehensive redevelopment was preferred with the post-1945 period seeing dramatic acceleration in the pace and physical scale of urban change.
Despite best intentions, urban clearance and a disregard for context destroyed established st...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Public Places Urban Spaces
APA 6 Citation
Carmona, M. (2021). Public Places Urban Spaces (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Carmona, Matthew. (2021) 2021. Public Places Urban Spaces. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Carmona, M. (2021) Public Places Urban Spaces. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Carmona, Matthew. Public Places Urban Spaces. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.