Design, and what makes it good

Miguel Luiz Bucalem

The pursuit of good urban design involves intent, purpose and will, also a shared vision and the will to overcome antagonisms and understand diverse interest groups

The partnership with the African Centre for Cities (ACC) of the University of Cape Town, which started in 2013 with the USP Cidades International Seminar, is being consolidated in 2014 with the publication of this magazine’s first Portuguese-language edition. Through this partnership, which brings with it additional international distribution, USP Cidades hopes to contribute to the debate on Brazilian cities and their challenges, taking advantage of the qualified forum offered by Cityscapes. Due to arrive in Brazil later this year, Cityscapes will broaden the debate on urban themes, with a journalistic, attractive, and inviting approach. USP Cidades is very pleased to bring to our country an innovative publication, at a time when cities are a central theme that interests and affects so many people. In addition, the publication contributes to the exchange through a south-south cooperation among countries, highlighting the potential of this partnership to the exchange of experiences, in particular for South African and Brazilian cities.

The theme of this edition of Cityscapes, “Design will not save the city”, addresses an issue that involves various perspectives and is of great relevance to anyone involved in the constant pursuit of a city that can offer better quality of life for its citizens. As a way to contribute to the debate, I will present some thoughts on the subject here. I believe that ‘good urban design’ is essential to allow cities to cope with the myriad of challenges they face today. This necessarily raises a question: What does good urban design mean?

Design is not the mere graphic representation of an idealized landscape; good urban design demonstrates intent, purpose and will. There is a technical quality ingredient too, although good technical quality is surely not enough. Good urban design involves an element of collective construction and shared vision in order for a project to be successfully implemented—it is a required condition. Meeting this requirement (of collectivism and shared aspiration) is not an easy task, because cities are stages of complex dynamics and any large-scale urban intervention affects the lives of many people. The process of creating an urban design that is accepted by citizens who have a direct stake in the project, while still remaining consistent with the vision of a desired city, is very challenging. In essence, interests and visions that may at first seem antagonistic have to become compatible.

Accomplishing this goal may be a greater challenge than producing a quality urban design. But good design arises from the continuous effort of dealing with antagonisms and seeking to understand the diverse nature of legitimate interests. It requires leadership, a constructive and genuine participatory process that prevents differences in knowledge and information about the project at hand from becoming obstacles to reaching a shared vision. There is also the feasibility question: good urban design should have a chance to become reality, and for that the financial, legal and institutional framework of each location plays a central role. Good urban design must also be managed and maintained over time, in order to serve the city in the long run—it is an ongoing task that does not end in a design’s physical implementation. The technological evolution of urban infrastructure and productive activities in cities pose new challenges and opportunities for urban design.


Good design arises from the continuous effort of dealing with antagonisms and seeking to understand the diverse nature of legitimate interest


City utilities such as distribution centres and drainage structures, which until a few decades ago were isolated from people’s interaction, must be harmonized with their surroundings through good urban design solutions. Activities and services associated with green industry should no longer be isolated in industrial zones and need to interact with housing, retail and services in the neighbourhoods. Drainage structures, which when inefficient impose major social and material costs, must not be hidden anymore. Their urban function needs to made explicit, and must take shape and be associated with the recovery of rivers and streams. These examples of good urban design need to be discovered and applied.

Certainly, the contents of this issue will present different views on the subject of urban design and its role in the development of cities. Hopefully they will lead to an interesting debate. There appears to be consensus that the more people become interested and empowered to discuss urban issues, the better the evolution of cities will be. Cityscapes magazine contributes to this goal. By presenting urban issues in a more journalistic and accessible way to citizens, many who will have had no previous technical training in planning, it enlarges the number of people who can join a qualified debate about cities. We are convinced that the USP Cidades partnership with ACC, which is reinforced by the publication of Cityscapes in Portuguese, including the production of local content, fits perfectly with our own mission of addressing the urban challenges, particularly of Brazilian cities.

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