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EDITORIAL - Urban design must embrace the weird and the wonderful


The Urban Design Group's complaint that student work is either proficient but unquestioning or too fanciful and abstract (page 4) illustrates the paradoxical nature of urban design. Like architecture, it is a discipline which requires a marriage between imaginative vision and practical skills. The enormity - and the elusiveness - of its remit is such that it encourages consideration of the unimaginable and the absurd.

Take Mark Whitby's proposal for a software system to keep aircraft at a safe distance from buildings (page 14).

It's a fanciful idea, but one that is rather more viable than decreeing that every new building should be constructed with the ability to withstand jet attack.

It is interesting that Whitby, an engineer, presented an idea which relates to artificial intelligence, politics, security and defence, in his capacity as chairman of the Urban Design Alliance. This kind of thinking is made possible both by the creativity of those involved with urban design, and by the fact that urban design, by its very nature, is concerned with public solutions to shared problems. Urban design's strength lies in the fact that it does not function properly within the confines of the traditional client/designer relationship, which dictates that the former must prioritise the benefit to the latter over any kind of public good. From initiatives to improve streets to issues of national security, its success depends on multiple backers, making it consensusdriven. Or, more realistically, contention-driven.

Teachers of urban design should not be fazed by the accusation that their students are either fantasists or conservative - the discipline has room for both. The most damning criticism is the accusation that student work fails to 'externalise the discussion', demonstrating 'a lack of awareness of the contentiousness of urban design'. In an area where objection, disagreement and hostility are inevitable, political acumen, diplomacy, communication skills and a willingness to engage in controversy are as important as design skills. And the ability to apply an urban design perspective to seemingly unrelated problems can transform the discipline into a powerful radicalising force.

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