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Urban design—From the "designed" city to the "design" of the city (Part 1)

2023-12-28 | Zhu Ziyu

Historically, urban design activities have emerged along with human settlement and urban construction actions, and where there is a city, there is "design". Urban design is the overall conceptualization and arrangement of the urban form and spatial environment, and the attractive urban spaces and living environment of human beings are obtained through "designing". A "designed" city with exquisite design, superb construction, and fine management will become a rich legacy of human civilization.


Figure 1. The designed cities

01 Urban design for high-quality urban development in the new era

China has achieved fruitful results in the context of rapid urbanization, but there are a series of chaotic phenomena in the construction field, such as environmental disorders, spatial planning disorder, uncontrolled construction heights, loss of ancient city characteristics, inappropriate urban scales, loss of traditional culture, architecture aesthetic disorders, and the failure in urban management. In the new period, faced with the task of addressing the problem of disorder and meeting the people's needs for a better life in high-quality development, it will be difficult to rely only on traditional planning methods, such as planning criteria control and zone planning. In the future, the work of urban planning, design, and build will involve from physical space to cultural construction, from zone planning to functional mixing, from property rights delimitation to spatial integration, from planning criteria data oriented to service quality oriented, and from top-down governance to bottom-up fine governance, so as to comprehensively promote the high-quality development of China's cities.

In this situation, the importance of urban design work has become increasingly prominent and has become the consensus of different parties and stakeholders. At the end of 2015, the Central Urban Work Conference, 37 years after the last conference, proposed to "comprehensively carry out urban design". The Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the State Council issued in February 2016, "On Strengthening Urban Planning and Design Management Work Several Opinions", which proposed to "improve the level of urban design, formulate regulations on the management of urban design, and establish and cultivate an professional urban design team".

In the 2022 Annual Meeting of the Urban Design Academic Committee of Urban Planning Society of China, Yang Baojun, Chief Economist of the Ministry of Housing and Construction, proposed, "Currently, China's urbanization has been developing for some time and has entered a subsequent development phase, and the city is facing plenty demands and requirements such as high-quality development, liveability and resilience, and the construction of a smart city, so we must re-study the paths and methods of urban design, give play to the role of urban design in leading and coordinating the city, and innovate the urban design system, and improve the governance level of urban planning and construction."

02 From the "designed" city to the "design" of the city 

Under the requirements of the new period, urban design is not only the traditional design activities and deprecated technical methods, but also changing the perceptions from the "designed" city to the "design" of the city. The urban design work needs to enrich the connotation of urban design itself, to fully utilize the advantages of urban design in terms of technical methods, control and governance, and coordination and formulation, and also to innovate the urban planning and construction governance system. The "design work" of a city includes, in particular, applying the technical methods of urban design to improve planning, promoting the work of urban design to guide design, and innovating the management system of urban design to control construction.

2.1 Utilize urban design technical methods to improve planning

Give full play to the advantages of the technical methods of urban design at different working scales. In accordance with the spatial level and scale, clarify the level of urban design preparation, and determine the main tasks and technical contents of urban design at different levels and of different types.

Compared with the traditional urban planning and related professional disciplines, urban design has unique technical and methodological advantages. In the 1991 edition of the Measurement for the Establishment of Urban Planning, Article 8 explicitly requires: "In all stages of establishing urban planning, urban design methods should be applied to make unified plans for the urban space and environment, taking into account the natural environment, humanistic characteristics, and the needs of the residents' production and living activities. So as to improve the quality of the city's environment, the quality of life and even the artistic level of landscapes in the city." Therefore, the concepts and contents of urban design at all levels should be integrated into the corresponding planning system, and "urban planning" should be done by "urban design" methods, so as to better utilize the technical and methodological advantages and professional value of urban design.

For example, in the post-disaster reconstruction of the Beichuan New Town, the concepts and methods of urban design are carried through all stages of planning, construction and implementation activities. And by optimizing the urban planning with the methods of urban design, designers combined the nature and urban areas, created a landscape pattern involving surrounding mountains and river, optimized the spatial form, and formed a beautiful living environment with characteristics.


Figure 2. The urban planning and design diagrams of the Beichuan New Town program

Author:Zhu Ziyu,Director of the Urban Planning Society of China, Chairman of the Urban Design Sub-committee, former Chief Planner of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design

Source: <https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/m2FYN-73CvWkNhtlUaLQjQ>

Translated by Zhang Chenxi