In summary

  • Professor Marcus White co-authors book about death of urbanism
  • The Death of Urbanism – Transitions through 5 stages of grief
  • Urban design paradigms transition through Kübler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief

Swinburne University of Technology Professor or Urban Design, Marcus White, an award-winning architect and urban designer, has co-authored The Death of Urbanism – Transitions through 5 stages of grief with Dr Nano Langenheim, lecturer in landscape architecture and urban design at the University of Melbourne. The book was commissioned by Art Architecture Design Research (AADR) and published by Spurbuchverlag in Germany.

The book begins by referring to the death of urbanism as pronounced by Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas in 1995.

“Since then, urban design has struggled to come to terms with this and other losses including environmental stability, affordable housing, design control, and urban amenity,” say Professor White and Dr Langenheim.

The Death of Urbanism – Transitions through 5 Stages of grief, explores urban design paradigms transitioning through a misappropriation of Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, from pro-sprawl denial, NIMBY anger, revisionist new urbanist bargaining, depressed starchitects, through to an optimistic manifesto of acceptance.

“‘Denial’, or business‑as‑usual urban ‘sprawl’ development, is no longer an option, nor is anti-development group anger at the difficulties of urban transition. Gone is the ‘bargaining phase, yearning for the past, with attempts at good urban design behaviour through nostalgia and promises of order. Urban design has passed through the ‘depression stage, with the work of ‘starchitects’, digital-procedural fetishism, and privileged white community co-design. In this final stage, we ‘accept’ the fate of urban design and make the most of the time left. In ‘acceptance’ we present an optimistic manifesto that includes strategic densification, making speculative plans, proposing smarter community participation, and putting forward an integrated performance-based approach to urbanism,” say the authors.

Photogrammetry point-cloud aerial view of the Michelangelo plan for the Capitoline Hill (Piazza del Campidoglio) Model by Yang, T & White, M (2019) using Google Landsat/Copernicus map data.

In the Death of Urbanism, Professor White and Dr Langenheim examine key historical city design approaches and ‘procedures’, along with recent urban design paradigms and some of their pitfalls.

“The visionary example of Haussmann’s Paris, and the holistic approach of Ildefons Cerdà in Barcelona demonstrate urbanism coming of age. These urban designers were simultaneously grappling with issues of transportation and network connectivity, improving public health by increasing access to daylight, airflow, and sanitation, alongside the concept of aesthetic visual unity through design for the human experience and composition from the human perspective,” they explain.

Professor White and Dr Langenheim’s research explores the integration of data, emerging technology and cultural specificity to support design decision making for cities in transition. 

‘Great Guitar Street in 3D! – perspective view’, detailed 3D streetscape point-cloud of Nguyễn Thiện Thuật, Phường 2, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam, 2019. Model by White, M (2019).

“Inclusion of new subjective, but quantifiable measures are of particular interest when we think about urbanism in the ‘acceptance’ stage. Consideration is needed for individual cultural aspects such as a sense of place, urban composition and beauty, contextual responsiveness or appropriateness. With the ‘palliative care’ approach to urbanism, we can draw from ‘data evidence’ as well as emerging technology procedures in urban visualisation, such as parametric and dynamic modelling, virtual reality and augmented reality modelling with gamified e-participation to help visual performance for truly integrated visual-cultural assessment,” say Professor White and Dr Langenheim.

Despite the declining quality of the built environment; the fears associated with bringing children up in a “pretty scary world” where politicians march towards the far right after decades of corruption and greed; and the complacent inaction on climate change now threatening our future, Professor White and Dr Langenheim have identified the importance of maintaining hope and humour through complex and difficult times. They conclude with more optimistic suggestions for advancing design responses for more equitable, healthy, sustainable and beautiful future cities. They balance serious urban research with dry and slightly black humour to help light the way through some dark and challenging but critical urban issues.

“In a time when we are under serious threat from catastrophic climate change and need rapid and radical urban transformation, vague motherhood statements of intended ‘urban niceness’ are no longer enough. Clearly defined and tested propositions for the future are needed, and they should range from conservative ‘baby steps’ speculations through to ‘uber-grim’ dystopias or radical and optimistic utopias,” explain the authors.

Professor White and Dr Langenheim recently experienced the death of close family members and the stages of grief. Together, they found researching and writing the book therapeutic. They suggest that as we respond to the dramatic impact of COVID-19 and the growing challenges of climate change, it’s a good time to take stock, feel our feelings and understand them, and adopt a therapeutic lens to think about the kinds of future we want for our cities, and the people who live in them.

Click here for a link to The Death of Urbanism.

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