Book review: The Routledge Handbook of Urban Design Research Methods

Book review: The Routledge Handbook of Urban Design Research Methods

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Reviewed by Tim G Townshend

First Published:

17 May 2024, 5:07 pm

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Book review: The Routledge Handbook of Urban Design Research Methods

Hesam Kamalipour, Patricia Aelbrecht, and Nastaran Peimani (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Urban Design Research Methods, New York, NY and Abingdon: Routledge, 2024; 578 pp.: ISBN: 9780367768058, £205.00 (hbk); ISBN: 9781003168621, £42.99 (eBook)

The Routledge Handbook of Urban Design is an attempt by the editors Kamalipour, Aelbrecht and Peimani, to bring together as wide a representation as possible of established and emergent urban design research methods and methodologies. Contributions are included from well-established researchers and those less well-known, and they cover case studies of varying contexts and scales – in both the Global North and South. Moreover, the editors seek to answer the question of what urban design ‘can be’, as much as providing a snapshot of the diversity that it currently represents. This has never been attempted before and marks an important milestone. As Carmona (2024) notes in the opening chapter of the volume, even as recently as the 1990s there was often a lack of rigour in urban design research and few appropriate texts on methods – an exception being Zeisel (1984). At that time, students of the subject had to ‘absorb and replicate methods from wherever they could’ (p. 15). This volume proves that much has been achieved in the interim.

The volume contains 52 chapters grouped into five roughly equal parts. These are entitled, ‘agency’, ‘affordance’, ‘place’, ‘informality’ and ‘performance’. There was obviously a clear editorial choice to keep the title of each section to a single uniting theme – though whether this completely works is debated below. Whatever the structure, it is quite a challenge to read cover to cover (although I suspect few readers will do this). More pertinently, it must have been a colossal task for the editors to bring together so many contributions, ensure consistent quality and academic pitch, and to assemble these into a coherent whole. However, I would argue that it has largely been achieved, and the editors should receive high praise for this indeed. Yes, there are one or two chapters that do not quite gel with their neighbours, but nothing so distracting that it requires further mention. Also, because of the number of contributions, it is impossible to comment on all of them in a word-limited review, therefore those specifically mentioned below are very much a personal selection.

Part one, ‘agency’ is a very good place to start (with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein). Whether it is a research focus, or not, agency – community versus government, activist versus mainstream and so on – is at the centre of urban change and thereby a key aspect of urban design. Who are the actors? Who are the beneficiaries? Who controls the narrative? These are therefore important questions. It is the last of these that is eloquently explored by Madanipour (2024), in relation to a temporary urban intervention in Lewisham, London. This challenges the official rhetoric of innovation and assistance to the homeless and young entrepreneurs, by applying what he calls ‘dynamic multiplicity’ (p. 23). By doing so, a more nuanced understanding is revealed – highlighting that the benefits to those in real need were miniscule. Who really benefits is also explored by Glover and Mayers (2024), in this case examining a community-led garden project. Through their theme of ‘subplots’ (p. 66), they discover inequalities, particularly for some ethnic groups, which again questions what otherwise might be seen as an ‘unmitigated triumph’ (p. 71). The importance of temporality is the other major theme of part 1 – arguably not a new theme in urban design – however there are a number of interesting contributions. Akkar Ercan (2024) provides a fascinating study of how an historic neighbourhood in Istanbul was rescued; and Çalışkan and Stolk (2024), explore how urban designers operationalise temporality within the design process – differentiating retrospective and prospective forms of imagination – which is highly original.

A coherent thrust of argument in part three, ‘Place’, is a little more difficult to pin down. Perhaps this is unsurprising; as Dovey (2024) states, the notion of place, ‘retains a certain mystery that resists reduction to formulae, or measurement’ (p. 221). Yet at the same time – as declared by Davison and Woodcock (2024)– place research is so important because ‘places matter to people’ (p. 259). Traditional arguments about sense of place and place attachment, for example, have emphasised ‘rootedness’ as a key concept. However this is challenged by Lewicka (2024), who argues that generally people are attached to wherever they live and that ‘mobility does not impede attachment’ (p. 234). King (2024), broadens this out and explores the manipulation of rootedness – the ways in which cities are re-created to enable, or constrain, memory. In essence, while studies of place are associated with a long trajectory of development in the field of phenomenology – for example, drawing on classic texts such as Relph’s (1976)‘Place and Placelessness’– place and place making remain a very contested area.

Part four, ‘informality’, demonstrates the complexity of this concept as well, operating as it does at difference scales and with divergent emphasis in different cultures. Contributors offer insights to informality as both a subject and an approach to research – including an entertaining chapter advocating bicycle powered urban research by Douglas (2024), which he describes as, ‘covering distance, without losing the perspective of human scale’ (p. 353). Understandably, there are multiple contributions on the topic of informal housing/settlements. Mukhija (2024) however, challenges assumptions on this topic by looking at informal housing developments in middle income areas of Los Angeles, where relatively elaborate backyard units have become almost a ‘norm’, along with more predictable forms, such as garage conversions. Slightly frustratingly, the work does not look at the impact these have on social relations in communities, or people’s experience of their neighbourhood. Moreover, informal housing in many Global North cities has a more problematic profile, with links to exploitative landlords and people trafficking (Lombard, 2019). The volume also includes three chapters on street vending, which though interesting does seem a slightly generous allowance for the topic, given there are many types of informal public space appropriation. These range from the dynamic and fleeting, such as parkour and skateboarding, to semi-permanent occupation such as street art and guerilla gardening – the latter in particular a subject that links both Global South and North. These might usefully be covered in future editions. Overall, the contributions make a strong case for engaging – as Kamalipour (2024) puts it – with the ‘informal turn’ (p. 373) to prepare future urban designers to engage with informal urbanism and increase understanding of how ordinary places are ‘made, unmade and remade’ (p. 375).

Part five of the volume is entitled ‘performance’. The focus of this final section is on whether places created provide good locales in which to live; and what methods elucidate that performance most effectively. Making those judgements is far from easy, however. Even though there are many authoritative studies of public space, as pointed out by both Lang and Marshall (2024) and Biddulph (2024), places often ‘perform’ in completely unpredictable ways. This begs many questions. For example, if a space is not designed for use by children yet turns out to be a great place to play, is it performing well, or not? This issue seems to be slightly side-stepped. Several chapters address the possibility of the use of new technology to increase ways of knowing. Hudson-Smith and Batty (2024) for example, review the role that virtual environments may have in engaging users in design debates, while Jensen et al. (2024) discuss thermal cameras, drones and eye-tracking. Each technology produces different types of knowledge. The first two can enhance mass observation, while eye-tracking provides individually focused perspectives. This is exciting stuff, but I am also in agreement with Mehta (2024), who states that while we should acknowledge new technology can collect and analyse volumes of data impossible to replicate by analogue methods, we should not be seduced by technology for its own sake but determine the most ‘appropriate tool’ for the research task in hand (p. 148). Finally, before leaving the debate on performance, there is a very useful chapter on modelling and measuring density by Pafka (2024) essentially stating that, while as a discipline we need greater clarity over this concept, the answer probably does not lead to a universal definition so much as ‘models at multiple, comparable and relevant scales’ (p. 467). I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments here, and suggest we need a similar approach for a range of definitions in common use in urban design, such as diversity, walkability and so on – concepts that may mean markedly different things in different contexts, and/or are culturally nuanced.

This leaves one further part for discussion –‘affordance’. This part is a collection of very useful human–environment interaction research, looking at wide range of settings, including the unusual, such as transit-orientated urbanism in the Global South (Peimani, 2024) and a refugee camp (Maqusi, 2024), as well as research methods –Aelbrecht’s (2024) use of body language methods is particularly novel. ‘Affordance’ is of course most closely associated with Gibson (1986/1979) in the field of environmental psychology. Without going into a detailed discussion of the concept, in essence it attempts to describe the relationship between the physical qualities of the environment, perception of those qualities and resultant use; he divided the environment into inanimate (physical) and animate (social) affordances. As Stevens (2024) points out in 2.2, designers are often guilty of misusing the term by equating it to function (p. 127). I would suggest that another way in which affordance has been misrepresented is to explore elements of it without addressing the whole concept. From my reading of Gibson, the concept is indivisible and if this is the case, I am not quite convinced that all of the chapters in this section are studies of affordance and perhaps a more neutral title might be preferable – though whether there is a single word alternative is doubtful. This is, however, I would stress, a personal view and a disquiet, rather than an overt criticism. Before leaving this section I particularly appreciated Banerjee’s (2024) revisiting of Lynch’s work with children in the 1970s. As he points out, Lynch was primarily concerned with the need for ordinary citizens to be engaged with the discourse of city design, and he was somewhat disappointed that much of his work was eclipsed by an obsession of planners and urban designers with the ‘nomenclature of imageability’ (p. 123) – an obsession that arguably perpetuates today.

So, in conclusion, do the authors meet their goal? Do they define not only what urban design is but what it ‘can be’? To the greatest extent I would confirm they have. This is a fantastic repository of case studies and research methods, which will be appreciated by scholars at all levels – though I suspect particularly by those planning out a PhD thesis. Moreover, I would re-emphasise that what I have managed to cover in this review is but a tiny fraction of what is included. I could not think of a mainstream method that is not thoroughly covered here, and there are a number of more experimental ones which will no doubt grow in application. There is, of course, always more that can be added in terms of research focus – and there are perhaps a few topics that I thought would be included for discussion, for example, the ‘20/15-minute city’ concept, however, nothing of huge consequence. In conclusion a job thoroughly well-done, and a highly recommended volume.

References

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