More on urban design effects and the RMA. I'm trying to work may way through some sort of urban design 'effects' rating system.
So far I have tried to understand what a rating system needs to do; how rating effects contributes to procedural and substantive decisions under the RMA. Now the meaty part – what are urban design effects in terms of the RMA? Lots to work through here.
So I need to take a different tack.
Somethings to address are:
- Is urban design normative or positive?
- If positive, then in what way does urban design affect the environment?
- Are urban design effects a positive or negative externality?
- Urban planning versus urban design?
- Whither the 7cs of the NZ Urban Design protocol?
Normative or positive?
Why start here? Perhaps the most basic assumption to be made is that urban design effects can be reliably, objectively measured in someway. Is urban design just a bunch of ideas as to how the built environment should be, with those ideas varying from urban designer to urban designer? Positive statements must be able to be tested and proved or disproved. Normative statements are opinion based, so they cannot be proved or disproved. Normative statements do not really help with constructing a robust rating system.
Having the word 'design' in urban design lends urban design towards the normative end of the spectrum. Design suggests a creative endeavour, perhaps something aimed at making a 'bit of a splash'. The other interpretation of 'design' is the sense of something of standard form or function that is shaped or moulded to fit specific circumstances.
I think urban design is increasingly grounded in research and observation. It may have started out as a bunch of thoughts and guesses about the interaction of people with built environments, but things have moved on. There is the 2005 MfE report on the value of urban design. This is still a good report. People like the old UK CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) referred to the benefits of urban design as providing ‘value’ in terms of things like:
• Exchange value: parts of the built environment can be traded;
• Use value: the built environment impacts on the activities that go on there;
• Image value: the identity and meaning of built environment projects, good or bad;
• Social value: the built environment supports or undermines social relations;
• Environmental value: the built environment supports or undermines environmental resources;
• Cultural value: the built environment has cultural significance.
More recently M Carmona in a paper called: “Place value: place quality and its impact on health, social, economic and environmental outcomes” (note 1) suggests that a different way of thinking about urban design benefits is more straightforwardly the degree to which the different qualities of the built environment impact, either positively or negatively, on different public policy goals. Things like public health, public safety and promoting social interaction are all basic public ‘goods’ or services that economies and communities need for them to operate successfully. Urban design and the built environment can and does influence the nature and extent of relationships between people and these public goods. The built environment might get in the way of a positive relationship, it can also accentuate a negative relationship. The built environment can also enhance these relationships.
After reviewing over 200 studies on the links between the built environment and public policy goals Carmona concludes that there are strong links between built environments and health and safety, as well as supporting economic exchange and improving the environment.
Now that is all well and good, but it might be said that urban design is not a proven set of facts or theories about how the built environment affects safety, for example. There is no theory in the sense that we can say with certainty: do x and y will result. It is not possible to be so assured as to the link between cause and effect. The above studies show a correlation between good and bad urban design and many positive and negative outcomes. But is there a causal link?
After all human beings are involved. Someone penned the following thought:
As I walk I react to the scale of a building in relation to the scales of others and to that of my own body. In all their proportionate interrelationships, heightening my awareness of self in space. To make my way toward my destination I draw geographic inferences and impose cognitive maps that orientate myself in, and make sense of, the structures through which I move, Drawn and reassured by the vitality on the street, I come out to join that urban commerce and thereby contribute to my own presence to the city’s life. The landscape features I pass become meaningful to me through their capacity to express cultural references, whether local or foreign. Any my determination to continue walking depends on how well the landscape responds to my flagging strength, my desire for shelter, my need for rest, and my wavering curiosity.
Carmona contends that it has been found that urban design is at least in part pseudo-scientific. This does not mean that urban design rests on a ‘foundation of nonsense’, but a foundation of untested hypotheses, or individual scientific findings that are not scientifically incorporated into the urban design corpus of knowledge.
That urban design can be classed as ‘pseudo scientific’ is not fatal. Jayne Jacobs ends Death and Life of Great American Cities with a chapter on how cities are systems of organised complexity. As such they cannot be analysed by standard scientific techniques (two variable problems). There are many variables in cities which interact and interrelate, many of which are not subject to proven theories of cause and effect. It is more a matter of likelihoods and probabilities.
She explains some tactics to analyse organised complexity:
- Detail – identify a specific factor and then painstakingly learn its intricate relationships and interconnections. Then move onto another factor
- Look for leverage – seek ‘unaverage’ clues involving very small quantities which reveal the way larger and more common quantities operate
- Processes – cities are always evolving – there is no equilibrium, so any activity or building or space must be placed in some sort of continuum or timeline. Focus on the catalysts that arrest one phase and start another
- Work inductively – reason from the specific to the general. This helps to avoid seeing cities in the abstract.
But is the lack of a scientific base to the understanding of urban design effects an issue? In a world of evidence driven policy, then maybe and maybe not.
Maybe not because much of resource management is about dealing with predictions and uncertainties as to future effects in the absence of complete knowledge. As we all know there is a huge area of opinion and judgement involved in many areas of urban planning and resource management. Here, probabilities of claimed effects are important. How certain are the links between cause and effect of many urban amenity concerns?
This has been called post-normal science. This is where people involved in unresolved issues hold strong positions based on their values, and the science is complex, incomplete and uncertain. Diverse meanings and understandings of risks and trade-offs dominate.
In a similar vein, given uncertainties, an Environment Court judge has suggested that the probabilities of effects be considered in terms of:
• Confidence in facts
• Likelihood of predictions.
But maybe the lack of a strong theory that has stood up to scrutiny (not be falsified) is an issue, mostly because of the human behaviour aspect of urban design. The social aspect of built environment effects may mean that adverse urban design effects need to get to a ‘significant level’ (whatever that is) before management and mitigation of them can kick in. Should the bar for action be a bit higher than for effects on the natural environment, for example?
Note 1: http://placealliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2018-June-12-Journal-of-Urban-Design-Place-value-place-quality-and-its-impact_MC.pdf