Urban Design Thinking
Can a toolkit be conceptual? The question is answered in the introduction to this book: ‘while it is conceived as a toolkit, these are tools for thinking and not recipes for practice’. It is a fair explanation of what follows and justified by another introductory comment: ‘poor urban design is always based on poor urban thinking’. Thirty short chapters follow in which a number of concepts commonly used by urban designers and other built environment professionals and stakeholders are analysed, deconstructed and questioned. The objective is to make us rethink many of our assumptions, and not to give us ready-made answers.
Dovey’s thinking is based on well-known theorists such as Jane Jacobs, Sennett, Alexander, Lynch and Gehl, and he quotes many others that readers might or might not recognise. On the other hand, this is not an abstract book, as examples are consistently used to illustrate and clarify what is being debated. The images are in black and white, surprisingly these days, but they manage to put across the author’s intentions.
In the first chapter, Urbanity, Dovey describes what he calls the urban DMA, the ‘assemblage’ (a recurrent word) of Density, Mix and Access, all necessary although not sufficient to create urban intensity. These three concepts are then each given a chapter and here the value of the book is evident.
Do you think you know what density means? Think again, and also think whether the qualities that we assign to density are always correct. This is just an illustration of how the book makes you reflect on its points. Further chapters deal with different kinds of issues, some more complex and abstract than others but all rooted in the city: Action, Type, Image, Place, Authority, Character, Shopping Malls, Tourism, Codes, Graffiti, Creative Clusters, etc. The text shows the interrelationships between these and there is a kind of progression towards complexity.
As the issues become more complex and contentious, the later chapters become more polemic. There is an underlining feeling that the author prefers the open, informal, spontaneous and temporary, to the top-down, closed, clearly ordered city, but he is careful to balance this by accepting that regulations and some order are needed. ‘How to regulate for cities of difference is one of the big questions of urban design’ is probably the main message of the book.
For the most part, the text is free of jargon and the concepts are easy to understand. Occasionally words appear that professionals may find clear, but lay people will struggle with (e.g. striated vs. smooth space). This is a minor criticism of a book that should be read by anyone interested in the urban environment.