City Whisperers: Why Designers Are Essential to Demystifying Urban Development

Author Cassim Shepard discusses the concept of the “design city” and how designers can act collaboratively to make cities better.

Skateboarders and bikers in front of the Hunters Point Community Library in Queens, New York, designed by Steven Holl Architects. Courtesy Alex Fradkin

In this interview, Metropolis editor Avinash Rajagopal talks with Cassim Shepard, author of the upcoming Citymakers: The Culture and Craft of Practical Urbanism (Monacelli Press, 2017), about the vital role designers have to play in cities—beyond top-down planning and no-build community activism.

Avinash Rajagopal: Can you explain the term “citymaker”?

Cassim Shepard: There tend to be two major ways in which we talk about agency in cities. One is the familiar top-down narrative of power brokers, elected leaders, or autonomous jewel-box architects who can, with a stroke of their pen, change the skyline of the city. Then there’s the bottom-up narrative of community, an undifferentiated mass that we need to pay attention to. Those narratives don’t add up to the full story. Individuals are making decisions every day that have small but discernible impacts on the experience and quality of life in cities.

Citymakers include the activists, civil servants, and designers who are working in the public sphere, and also the people who are interpreting the city, whether they’re social scientists, writers, photographers, or artists—people who are pointing a finger at what’s happening out there and allowing us to understand how it’s going.

AR: How do you feel design is threaded through this process of citymaking?

CS: Design is fundamental. However, there are few traditional design projects talked about in the book [which is focused on New York City]. I do discuss Michael Van Valkenburgh’s design for Brooklyn Bridge Park and about KVA’s architecture design for the 34th Street ferry terminal. But the book tries to show how design and spatial thinking can be applied broadly.

Citymakers was born out of reporting that author Cassim Shepard conducted for Urban Omnibus, an online publication of the Architectural League of New York, launched in January 2009.

For example, a South Asian–American oriented housing-advocacy nonprofit called Chhaya CDC has a campaign to legalize a code for accessory dwelling units in illegally subdivided homes that are zoned for single families in Queens. The vast majority of housing units in New York City, regardless of their size, are for nuclear families. But there’s an increasing number, especially among recent immigrants to New York, of joint families that need a four- or five-bedroom home. What ends up happening is people are illegally subdividing basements and attics in ways that are sometimes unsafe.

One of the things that became very clear in talking to this housing-advocacy nonprofit—which doesn’t necessarily talk about its issues in architectural terms—was just how beneficial it would be if the organization had some design expertise to help make the case for how these could be done safely.

One of the other benefits of design thinking is iterative problem-solving, with an emphasis on the iterative. Community engagement can’t continue to be a process where you present a plan to only those community members who have the time to show up to a meeting and say, “Do you like this or do you not like this?”

AR: What role does technology play in this kind of citymaking?

CS: A lot of the evangelism around information technology right now is around “Let’s disrupt the status quo and make things as efficient as possible and connect clients directly with service providers.” Whether that’s Uber or Airbnb, there’s this logic of disruption and efficiency as opposed to what I think is one of the greatest benefits of technology right now, which is to make the complexity of urban systems and urban management much more legible to your average, everyday users.

The greatest impediment to citizens exerting more power over their built environment and their neighborhoods is the lack of legibility about how things work. Housing finance, the economics of affordable housing, and the economics and politics of infrastructure investment are so complex. It’s up to the technologist to make these systems more legible and expose the people to how things move along the chain of city government.

AR: You spoke earlier about the role of people who interpret the city. Why do designers need to constantly demystify and communicate the city?

CS: Megaprojects that are insensitive of where people actually live and work came about because of this positivist idea of just basing everything on numbers—what’s observable can be measured and that’s all that really matters. But we know that there are a lot of other cultural, emotional, societal factors that influence people’s quality of life that need to be taken into account.

However, in the last ten years, because of innovations in technology we’re risking a return of positivist thinking: that what can be measured should determine how we design our environment. There is starting to be such an excitement and enthusiasm about the amount of things we can put sensors onto that we are losing sight of the ability to tell qualitative stories.

We need designers who are more fluent in the coding and measuring and smart city stuff. But we also need designers who are deeply entrenched in how to tell nuanced, specific, subjective stories about places in order to create common ground and understanding about those aspects of cities that are totally ineffable and can never be quantified.

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