By Jeremy Németh, PhD
By way of introduction, I am currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Planning and Design at UCD, where I also serve as Director of the Master of Urban Design program. I moved to Denver in 2007 after completing my PhD at Rutgers University. Before that, I received degrees in architecture and urban design from UC Berkeley and University College London (UCL) respectively, then worked for several years as an urban planner in California. I have also practiced professionally in Italy, Tanzania and the UK.
I mention all this because I want readers to understand my dual roles as professor and practitioner. My contributions to DenverUrbanism will attempt to bridge this gap between the academy (read: Ivory Tower) and practice, and I will connect research findings to on-the-ground realities in the Mile High City.
I believe this is an important task: previous DenverUrbanism contributors have noted that policy makers, planners, community leaders and the general public are recognizing the impacts of a well-planned and designed built environment on health, safety, happiness, economic wellbeing and ecological sustainability. This is a crucial moment in city building, as decision makers are asking important urban questions and are turning to both academics and practitioners for the best solutions.
In this first post, I’ll put on my teacher hat for some DenverUrbanism 101. First question: what is urbanism and how does it differ from urban design?
Urbanism is a lens through which to view and interpret the city. Urbanists attempt to understand how economic, political, social, ecological and cultural characteristics of place affect urban form and social life. While the most well-known and codified “formal” urbanism is, of course, the New Urbanism, recent entries to the field range from the environmentally-focused (Ecological, Landscape or Sustainable Urbanism), to the people-centered (Participatory or DIY Urbanism) to the….well, I’m not exactly sure (Bricole, Propagative, Gypsy or Retrofuture Urbanism).
Urban design, on the other hand, moves beyond the study of space; it is the practice of actively shaping the city in a desired fashion. Urban designers improve the livability of cities by translating plans into physical strategies, establishing design criteria for development projects, designing the space between buildings, and arranging public spaces, streets, blocks, neighborhoods and infrastructure in a logical and meaningful way. Good urban designers account for built, human, and natural systems, and are thus inherently interdisciplinary practitioners. The finest urban designers trust their instincts and training but also rely on the best research possible, whether from academic sources or from their own public outreach. In this way, urban design is both art and science, occupying the conceptual space between architecture and urban planning.
Now that we’ve gotten the boring stuff out of the way, let’s return to me. My posts will take some of our best classroom discussions into the blogosphere, and my next contribution will look at the importance of physical public space in an increasingly digital 21st century. Stay tuned.
Jeremy Németh, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Planning and Design and the Director of the Master of Urban Design (MUD) program at the University of Colorado Denver, where his teaching and research focus on the design, management and politics of public space.