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When was urban design born as a profession?

Updated: Jul 4


Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

“Ordinary people are capable of doing wonderful things.” - Jane Jacobs.

This is a story of how a domain of study, now known as Urban Design, gained momentum in the 1950s. It began when the citizens of New York protested against the proposed demolitions and the spatial injustice it entailed.

In the year 1955, Robert Moses, a city planner, proposed the Lower Manhattan Expressway project. He faced objections from citizens as they carried protest signs that read, “Death of a Neighbourhood.” Amongst them was one stubborn resident named Jane Jacobs, who later came to influence city planning in a significant way. Jacobs was an American-Canadian journalist and theorist who was criticised as a ‘housewife.’ By organizing the community under threat, she protested against the ideological standpoints of Moses.


Jacobs believed that a city planner should focus on preserving neighborhoods as diverse, walkable, and mixed-use areas. They should pay close attention to the intrinsic value of older buildings while shunning car-centric construction. But, Moses’s vision was for a modern, efficient, and car-centric New York. The ideological clashes between them describe the world’s most famous urban planning debate. They exemplify the contradiction between top-down and bottom-up notions of urbanism (Paletta, 2016).

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

The Expressway was an effort to connect the ends of local roadways by extending the ten lanes of Interstate-78. Between these ends lay the cityscapes of Soho, Little Italy, and Castle Clinton, which were a hurdle for the project. A total of fourteen blocks - more than 415 buildings with 2100 families and 990 commercial establishments - were set for demolition. In her letter to the city’s mayor, Jacobs said, “It is very discouraging to do our best to make the city more habitable. Only then to learn that the city is thinking up of schemes to make it uninhabitable.” This project would impose the city planner’s will on these cityscapes.

Then, Jacobs forged a local coalition of residents, intellectuals, and ordinary people. They came together to protect the neighborhood from displacement or to have their access to the ocean cut off. Jacobs’s cultivation of the media and the public resulted in a spectacular takedown of Robert Moses and the construction of the highway.

Here, the profession of architecture and planning was an external agent, and it failed catastrophically. It revealed the privileged position of thinking that drove practitioners and showcased how the practitioners’ understanding of their lifestyle drew their actions and thoughts.

But, how is this story related to Urban Design as a profession? Well. It was one of the pivotal points in history, where griping literature on failures of architecture and city planning emerged. At odds with urban renewal, Jacobs came up with a positive vision of the “teeming city” and wrote an article for Fortune magazine. It further led to the commission of her masterwork, 'The Death and Life of American Cities.’ The book nudged the discourse of city planning from a modernist and orthodox viewpoint to a genuine and inclusive one. Jacob’s theorisation of city planning largely influences the existing dogma around Urban Design. Be it Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) or the theories of Urban Renewal, this story tells us that Urban Design as a discourse came to challenge the correctness of certain specialists. It came to assert the images and emotions of the people back into the negative images of specialists and rare knowledge forms amassed by monopolies.

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

Like Moses, specialists in the field created emotional, economic, and social luxuries. The end-users could not afford these out of their desiring thoughts. In the creation of such luxuries through their wishful thinking, they had side-lined their target user group. The normative processes, the means of engagement, and the frameworks in use outweighed the significance of the design.

Moreover, the quest for intellectual validity and inquiry began at the points of failures of professional knowledge. Eventually, their positionality and meaning were called into doubt.

During this time, the monopolies perpetuated Adam Smith’s idea of ‘free-market theory.’ It wrongly assumed that any action taken in the present was reversible in the future. The thinking was that the accumulation of policy and planning was linear and that it could be undone. It meant that planners could care less about making bad decisions of designing and resource utilization. Eventually, they realised they had messed it up and sought to undo it. Until then, the entire urban environment had restructured itself and catapulted the processes to match the planning decisions in the last 50 years. So, what we plan for a city generally has a one-way socio-economic impact. Every change is almost irreversible.

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder. And this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

- Jane Jacobs


Urban design as a discourse


Urban design was born to counter such linear production methods of industrial monopolies. It came up as an investigation into the language of cities projected by the specialists of capitalism. It came up as a deliberate and organised process to allow architecture and planning to remain alive as an important discourse.

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

Urban Design became a tool to harness the public’s potential in the spaces they inhabited as individuals and communities. As a tool, it legitimised the construction of private spaces and their effect on immediate contexts. It came up during the age of rapid urbanisation where the public was losing insight into these discourses and their consequent knowledge production.

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad

Amongst various domains in architecture and planning, Urban Design is the most political. It satisfies individual needs and produces public goods, which further enrich public participation. It enhances the overall value added to cities by generating each action or investment. Hence, resulting in an improved economy and public well-being.

Though Jacobs was not a formally trained designer or planner, her contributions impacted our cities and lives in a meaningful way. Her story is an inspiration to every ordinary citizen and non-specialist out there. She managed to bring forth some critical and pragmatic theories and managed to inspire ordinary people into thinking about Urban spaces and planning eventually evolving into discourse and finally into a profession. From her efforts in defending the orthodox ideologies, we understand that the subject of design and planning is not limited to specialists but is instead a tool and a democratic process that works towards shaping a city. With its long-lasting impact, Urban Design is responsible for the way of life of every individual and the entire civilisation.




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About the Writer

Ajinkya Jamadar is an architect with an inclination towards Sustainable Development and Urban Ecologies. He has previously worked at Bangalore based architecture firm Biome Environmental Solutions. He is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal.


About the Editor

Aishwarya Jadhav is an architect, urban researcher, and software trainer by profession. She is a travel enthusiast, architectural photographer, and literary writer. She is a graduate of the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, UK and the Sir J.J. School of Architecture, Mumbai. She has experience working at Urban Liveability Forum, Dharmalaya Institute for Compassionate Living and Abhikalpan Architects and Planners.


About the Illustrator

Ayadi Mishra is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working with An Architect, Ethos India, WPF Creatives, Nivedha Foundation, SkyManga. She has attended summer school at the Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology & Innovations, Bhuj, and has been a finalist in Solar Decathlon India.

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