The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, is the last Architecture-related book that has ended in my hands. A long overdue read that currently has earned a fixed spot in the bag that shares with me any displacement I do in New York.
The book is widely known since it was first published and one of the most influential texts about the way cities work. Going through its pages, you may find yourself producing a huge amount of thoughts after almost every paragraph.
And is specifically one of those series of thoughts what drives me to write this post. I am not going to make neither a book review nor a critic, but to take one of the multiple statements that Jacobs spreads around the text and try to develop it in order to test its validity.
Even though the book was written 1961, in its introduction there is a paragraph that talks about the problem of Urbanism and University that is directly applicable nowadays. She uses the example of the district called North End, in Boston, one of Jacob’s case studies for the book, which the inhabitants transformed over the years without help of financial institutions and big city plans, and was a recurring assignment for M.I.T. and Harvard planning and architectural students who, guided by their teachers, proposed super-blocks and park promenades for the entire district.
This particular statement made a direct question come up in my head: is one of the roots of the crisis in the discipline in direct relationship with the way Universities teach Urbanism?
In the Architecture School of Barcelona (ETSAB), where I studied, Urbanism is an independent part of the curriculum from the second year to the fourth. I have always considered it as a very strong asset of the school, since is based on the strong urban tradition that Barcelona has develop over its history.
Being an independent department, with courses for three years, allow to develop two different parts, being the first one the basic identification and representation of city districts and the second one the realization of urban scale projects.
The part in which students have to identify and then represent graphically different city districts, street hierarchies, public spaces and their relationship with the city structure, etc, makes a big impact when the students face the design of an architectural project in the School. Urban Analyses and Implications are a constant in the first phase of design studios, and a characteristic feature of the school itself.
This way of teaching Urban Design gives students a powerful tool to use in future projects, but as a part of a whole, the intention of giving such knowledge is to be developing in Urban Scale projects, where we converge with the problem expressed by Jacobs in her book.
When the time to propose Urban Interventions, teachers tend to push for Master Plan strategies mostly based on a grid to be filled with blocks. In the case of the School of Barcelona exists a sensitiveness toward the public space and the horizontal distribution of uses in order to empower the street use that might be different than what Jacobs explained about M.I.T. (and nothing to underestimate), but still, under my point of view, far from current problems that the cities are going through nowadays.
Is hard to argue why the main tendencies in teaching Urban Design are based on strategies developed decades ago, where cities where finding their way to expand (Commissioner’s plan in New York, Cerdá’s Eixample in Barcelona…).
I propose moving to more experimental areas and make students actually relate with the cities or districts in which they are designing as one part more of the process, look for strategies to face shrinkage rather than expansion (see “Are we ready for the shrinkage of a city?“), work in wide teams with different professionals and neighbourhoods representatives.
If there is a place where to do that, is University. That way students will go out to the professional world with an actual sense of what an actual Urban Project means. I cannot do more than agree with Jacobs in her observation. There is a difference though, the social and economical situation is totally different, now we have an urgent need for a change, which actually may make it happen.