Urban design is fun.


Urban design is the first out of the three design studios I have to complete in my Master of Architecture course. It is generally defined as the process of giving form, shape, and character to groups of buildings, to whole neighborhoods, and the city. It is a framework that orders the elements into a network of streets, squares, and blocks. Urban design is also about making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric and the goal is usually to make the urban areas more functional, attractive and sustainable.

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Before I take on this design studio, I have had already some interest in urban design. I do like to see how and where the buildings were placed in relation to each other and their significance to the overall masterplan. I have been to many cities with unique urban planning before like Siem Reap (the ancient city of Angkor where the famous Angkor Wat temple is at the centre), Beijing (city spine or axis from Tiananmen Square to Forbidden City and then all the way up straight to Olympic Park, picture below), Paris (the streets and uniform building heights and patterns), Seoul (the Cheonggyecheon River and the public realm along it, picture below), etc. I like to research on the many urban case studies across the world from the ancient or historical city planning to the ones in the present. They are not only useful to my study in this particular studio but also beneficial for my extra knowledge on this field that involves a lot of parties (architect, urban planner, landscape architect, engineers, authority, etc).

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After this studio that I have completed, I do discovered many more useful information and knowledge behind a successful urban design. Here below are the top 10 urban design knowledge that I have learnt from my studio which can be seen as the basic principles or guidelines on creating a good urban planning:

(1) Be pedestrian-friendly. Pedestrian streets over vehicular roads.

Urban design is mostly about creating good environment for people to walk, to see, to play, to shop, to eat, etc. Having beautiful pedestrian streets or promenades gives a nice and safe ambience to people. Lesser attention to roads.

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(2) Activate ground level. 

Ground level is where all the things should be happening. Skywalks (those pedestrian bridges) are now very popular urban trend to link buildings away and above the roads. They may be useful but they are sometimes bad on preventing people to be on ground level. Try makes the public spaces on the ground to be interesting to draw people to that level.

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(3) Continue lines from existing urban or city grid. And create new ones too.

To start on your master planning, try as much as you can to link your newly proposed roads or streets to the existing ones outside your site boundary to create a continuity so that your masterplan isn’t in its ‘own world’. Linking to existing urban patterns (grids) is very important for a continuous uninterrupted flow around or within the urban area.

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(4) Have a driver or an overall concept.

It is preferred to have a main strategy before starting on the urban planning. A main concept or driver to your imagined urban development. For example, you can have your site to be transit-oriented (main focus on transportation links), or water-oriented (priority for water views or for various interaction or engagement with people from water). Have a look on some good examples of successful urban projects across the world. Research on them, make them as your precedent studies, and maybe you can find certain interesting elements to be incorporated in your urban design as well.

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(5) Emphasize on views, vantage points, visual axis or linkage. See at human scale.

View is important. When you are proposing a street here, try and imagine what would people see at the end of this particular street? It’s best that the planning is done to allow people to have certain intended view (for example, view of a river, view of a sculpture, view of an interesting roof, view of a major park, or view that directs people to another angle, etc). Always see from a human scale.

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(6) Have something as the centrepiece of the planning.

It’s always an ideal way to have something that stood out among the rest in your masterplan. It would be boring to have all proposed built forms in your masterplan to have uniform and similar strength, proportion, height or scale. Have one particularly large or tall building (a landmark) as the limelight of the overall masterplan. Or if you think that is unnecessary, have a main public square as the node of your planning. On the other hand, try to propose a few more civic or community buildings like library, aquarium, sports hall, shopping mall, museums, art gallery, etc to create a sense of place and to gives identity to the particular urban area or city.

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(7) More parks, plazas or squares. Public realm is the most important.

Create these spaces for people to walk, relax, interact, etc. Public space is the priority in an urban design. Have them designed in a way that it invites people, it engages people, it attracts people, at any time of the day if possible. It’s not about the quantity too as it’s about quality. Having a lot of parks or plazas may not be good as this approach will make people to go on separate ways since they have many choices to make (on which parks or plazas to go).

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(8) Connectivity and practicality in mind.

It would be cool to have the urban planning to feature extensive greenery, massive parks, huge waterways, etc. You can be daring in your design. However, kindly think of whether it is practical to have that. Will it interrupts flow of people? Can it be accessed by cars? Can the disabled go over there? Can goods or loading be done over here to cater for this building? Also think about the distance to reach a place from the office, from the mall, from the homes, from the hotel, etc. On the other hand, car park is an ugly building but it is very much needed even if you don’t like it. How are you going to have that in your masterplan while not being a waste of space or being an unpleasant sight? Avoid from having car park taking up ground level and preferably place it in basements or in a podium together with facility floors. You can even propose to treat the facade of the car park podium to be interesting. But let’s not get into detail of buildings as urban design is not about that.

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(9) Be green. 

Everything is about sustainability now in the architecture world. It’s good to bring the nature back into your masterplan by proposing parks with extensive landscaping (or even lakes, etc) as people love to enjoy the nature if it’s provided and it’s beautiful. Be green in this case also means having your masterplan to work in a way that you envisioned it to be energy efficient by having the future built forms in the site to have maximum exposure to natural daylight, making use of wind direction, sun orientation, etc.

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(10) Think about land use, setbacks and mass of buildings. 

This is where standard comes in. There is the setbacks to buildings that you have to provide when setting out your proposed location of new built forms. Each authority has their own set of guidelines on it, and it includes also on the mass of building (height, density limit, etc). As for the zoning, try to think over and over again why would you want to propose a hotel here instead of at the other places in your site. That’s one of the examples. If you can’t find good reason for it, then it’s not a good urban design decision. Work on it again.

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In conclusion, urban design is mostly about people and its about the spaces between buildings (roads, streets, parks, boulevards, lanes, plazas, walkways, etc). Social system goes above vehicular system. People over cars. A good urban design facilitates human interaction, activates dead spaces, ensures smooth flow and permeability, and caters to a demand-seeking future. A masterplan should be flexible, able to adapt to future changes or addition of new built forms if possible. It should be done to prepare the site to meet demands in the future especially when all the cities now are growing fast with increasing need for more residential, commercial, leisure or tourism developments. When you are designing a masterplan, imagine being in there yourself, what do you want to see, where do you want to go, what do you want to do once you are in that space? Have plenty of good reasoning to all the design making decisions you have make, and then you will have an excellent masterplan. There is no right or wrong but there is a point where we know whether it works or not. It requires a lot of thinking in macro-scale. That’s what differentiates urban design from architecture.

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(Images in this post are from various sources throughout the world wide web)

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