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Thoughts on urban planning, city design, architecture, the built environment, social issues, Seoul, Korea, and soon... London

8.2.04

What can urban/architectural design do? 

The question of the ability of city design to determine social activities is one of the more interesting questions/points Malcom Tait of the Department of Town and Regional Planning of the University of Sheffield raises in his article "Urban villages as self-sufficient, integrated communities: a case study in London's Docklands" published in Urban Design International.

Proponents of the "Urban Village", as indeed do those of other planning solutions/utopias, tend to assume that if you build it, they will act this way. In other words, a plan -- or more particularly its resulting space and forms -- are expected to set off a particular and intended chain of behavioral, social, economic, political, etc. reactions that will ultimately result in a (closed) social system (in the case of the urban village, a "community").

The question of the ability of urban or architectural designs/spaces to determine the behavior of inhabitants is a fundamental one to all architects, planners, developers, and others involved in the formation of buildings and cities. I propose that the built environment influences, not determines, social behavior. That is, it frames our experiences, but is only one of a number of factors that inform how we live, the choices we make and what we do. That is, the design of the built environment sets off a wave of ripples (reactions), but this wave is at times/places confounded or complimented by waves from other social, political and economic factors.

As Tait points out, the activities of the inhabitants of West Silvertown were greatly influenced by an entanglement of factors such as location of employment, job status, housing tenure, life stage and mobility. The spatial relations of the 'village' do not account for these - they are rather additional factors.

This suggests that design plans cannot provide a totalizing solution.

So what can urban and architectural designs do? -- I'll come back to this (well hopefully eventually).

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