The Urban Design Group (UDG), a campaigning membership organisation founded in 1978 in the United Kingdom, has played a major role in showing the value of good urban design through the acclaimed journal Urban Design, newsletters and events, including The Urban Design Awards, sponsored by Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, Atkins and Routledge Publishers.
The “2012 Urban Design Award for Lifetime Achievement” was given to Ian Bentley, Sue McGlynn, Alan Alcock, Paul Murrain and Graham Smith in recognition of “Responsive Environments: a manual for designers”. Since its publication by Architectural Press in 1985, RE has been translated into many languages and has become very influential. The lead author of RE, Ian Bentley, kindly accepted the invitation to take part in an interview to discuss urban design and related issues.
In Brazil, as in other cities around the world, urban design has been considered a key tool in the enhancement of urban quality of life. Although design is just one tool involved in the generation of popular urban environments, it does play an important role in shaping the quality of urban experience, for better or worse. In this regard, it is nowadays widely accepted that if urban design is to suit users” needs and, therefore, trigger an overall sense of well-being, it should be informed by up-to-date research on human-environment relations, instead of being based only on practitioners” own preferences and intuitions (1).
The term “urban design” was coined in the United States in the late 1950s and since then it has been consolidated as a multidisciplinary field concerned with the subjective-rational process of generating urban open spaces for people (2). In Brazil, issues related to the field of urban design began to be discussed in Curitiba in the 1970s. Nowadays, practitioners in the country are faced with the challenge of developing design solutions likely to contribute towards the generation of democratic urban settings (3).
An interview with Ian Bentley, therefore, is of special interest to the Brazilian audience at this time because the idea that “the built environment should provide its users with an essentially democratic setting” inspired him and his colleagues to write RE (4). “Legibility”, “visual appropriateness”, “richness”, “personalisation”, “variety”, “permeability” and “robustness” were identified as key urban design qualities which help to make urban open spaces responsive through offering a high degree of choice to a large variety of people at different times (5).
Legibility and visual appropriateness may help users to spot the choices available for them within an urban setting, since the former quality deals with the readability of the visual structure, helping people to feel micro-located, and the latter with how easily the detailed appearance of a setting may contribute towards its recognition.
Richness is present whenever a milieu offers the choice of noticing a wealth of positive sensory experiences. Personalisation is related to the temporary transformation of urban open spaces by their users who often search for opportunities of self-expression.
Variety unleashes variety. A space characterized by a variety of uses tends to be characterized by a variety of forms, sounds, smells, meanings, people, behaviours and son on. Permeability provides opportunities to explore a setting by encouraging freedom to walk. The quality of robustness influences the degree to which one can use a setting for different purposes, over short and long periods of time.
Robustness parallels the concept of “affordance”: perceptible properties that, when noticed, provide information of what one can do in a space (6). The affordances present in an environment may or may not be automatically perceived by an individual in a specific condition, although they are always there.
For example, depending of the physiological capacities, needs and wants of an individual, the water fountain in Portland Square, Oregon, designed by Lawrence Halprin, may be perceived as able to offer a relaxing experience or a playful encounter. The concept of affordance, therefore, invites practitioners to consider the environment and the individual simultaneously.
Empirical evidence suggests that people tend to prefer urban open spaces which facilitate the fulfilment of their needs and wants. In this regard, previous research has identified comfort, relaxation, discovery, passive and active forms of interaction as the most common needs that people expect to satisfy when spending time in urban open spaces (7). Focusing on the definition of each of these needs, comfort has been considered the most pervasive of all needs.
All sorts of activities to be performed efficiently demand a certain degree of physical and psychological comfort, such as protection against noise, shelter from unfavourable weather condition, a sense of security, and son on. Relaxation differs from comfort in that it offers a higher level of release. Discovery “represents the desire for stimulation and the delight we all have in new, pleasurable experiences” (8).
Passive and active forms of interaction may be understood as diametrically opposite needs. While the former refers to the desire for an “encounter with the setting, albeit without becoming actively involved” (9), the latter involves the need for a vigorous social or environmental engagement with it.
As far as the present discussion is concerned, it is worth realizing that permeability, variety, visual appropriateness, richness, robustness, legibility and personalisation are very likely to address the user needs for comfort, relaxation, discovery, passive and active forms of interaction.
The experience of psychological comfort, for instance, may be more easily experienced in visually appropriate and legible settings. A space designed for visual and non-visual richness may fulfil an array of needs depending on the nature of the sensory experiences afforded by it.
A space, for instance, where one can sit and notice favourable weather conditions, bird songs, fragrances emanated from flowers and panoramic views may facilitate the experience of comfort, relaxation and passive engagement. Finally, by facilitating the performance of different sorts of activities in urban open spaces, robustness may address a variety of needs serially and even simultaneously.
Having introduced some preliminary issues and concepts related to Bentley”s research, the following excerpts from the interview with the lead author of RE are intended to contribute to the ongoing discussion about the contemporary relevance of urban design in generating urban open spaces accessible and attractive to a large variety of people.
CARR, Stephen et al. Public space. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992; FRANCIS, Mark. Urban open space: designing for user needs. Washington: Landscape Architecture Foundation, 2003; LANG, Jon. The “new” functionalism and architectural theory. In: MOORE, K. D. (Ed.). Culture – meaning – architecture: critical reflections on the work of Amos Rapoport. Hants: Ashgate Publishing, 2000, p. 77-102.
CARMONA, Matthew et al. Public places urban spaces: the dimensions of urban design. 2. ed. Amsterdam: Architectural Press, 2010.
DEL RIO, Vicente. Introduction: historical background. In: DEL RIO, Vicente; SIEMBIEDA, W. (Eds.). Contemporary urbanism in Brazil: Beyond Brasília. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. p. 291-301.
BENTLEY, Ian et al. Responsive Environments: a manual for designers. London: Architectural Press, 1985, p. 9.
GIBSON, James Jerome. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton, 1979.
Idem, ibidem, p. 1-2; THWAITES, Kevin; SIMKINS, Ian. Experiential landscape: an approach to people, place and space. London: Routledge, 2007.
CARR, Stephen et al. Public space. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p.134.
Idem, ibidem, p.105.