Designing Beyond the Virtual City

This website design process got me thinking about the city design process, and what they’ve got in common. Does the virtual translate to the concrete? No matter how technology changes, the process used to design websites is fundamentally the same. Is that also true for cities?

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More often than not, I work in a virtual world. I manage web projects for a public university, and recently we held the kickoff meeting of a comprehensive website redesign. It’s something we haven’t done for four years, a long time in the world of the online. A lot has changed in that time — how HTML pages are structured, the use of Web 2.0 technologies, the interactive and insistent nature of users, and university branding. If you consider your own use way back in 2004, you probably didn’t visit many blogs, weren’t a part of Facebook or another social site, and didn’t use iTunes or YouTube. Sure, some of you did, but mostly not. Technology changes at an exponential rate, and folks working in the web world — for higher ed or otherwise — must move accordingly.

This website design process got me thinking about the city design process, and what they’ve got in common. Does the virtual translate to the concrete? No matter how technology changes, the process used to design websites is fundamentally the same. Is that also true for cities?

For websites, I use a five-step process, each comprised of milestones and deliverables. In phase 1 — defining the project and site — we form a team, conduct internal and external surveys, perform an industry analysis, and create a project plan and creative brief (the former sets schedules and responsibilities, the latter defines the creative vision and approval mechanisms). Phase 2 — developing site structure — includes auditing existing website content, creating the “information architecture” or site map, identifying how users will move through the site (what we call “feature sets and pathing”), establishing a content delivery plan and then beginning content development, and making and testing wireframes, a sort of pre-design schema incorporating all the items we want on the page, but not yet knowing where they’ll go. In phase 3 — visual design — we create and then select a final visual design and test how users like it.

Phase 4 — production and QA — takes the longest. In addition to developing announcement and testing/quality assurance plans, we actually build out the site here, incorporating any back-end systems as well as the content developed earlier. Beta launch and follow-on testing and fixes also occur. Finally, phase 5 — launch and beyond — includes website and systems training, development of style and user guides, making the site live to the public, and follow-on maintenance and evaluation.

In seeking similar city-design processes from town planning peers, I was pointed to the classic Responsive Environments, the Urban Design Compendium and Urban Design Compendium 2, and the forthcoming Civic by Design: The Technique of John Nolen by Tom Low. To these we should add Kevin Lynch’s seminal Good City Form and Christopher Alexander’s 1977 paradigm-shifting A Pattern Language. But that’s an awful lot of reading for a guy who’s already stretching to make this extended metaphor work.

So instead I turn to Frederick Jarvis’s Site Planning and Community Design for Great Neighborhoods, copyright 1993, which I used in site planning class back in my urban planning grad school days. I see a new edition has not been published since then, which may be telling, but I’ll list Jarvis’s seven-phase neighborhood planning process nonetheless: 1) organize, 2) strategize, 3) visualize, 4) commit, 5) refine, 6) endorse, and 7) implement.

That process is not more than a widescreen monitor’s width from the website design process, really. Yet more even than website design, Jarvis’s well-meaning process is generic. Too generic, I think, to be of real use for city design. But that’s where newer resources come in — where the concrete meets the virtual — and so I turn back to the recommendations, to a new website that grew out of the Urban Design Compendium: On this U.K-based site, detailed urban design principles and steps for “delivering quality places” come together in a rich mix of online resources for city designers, planners, and other stakeholders. British case studies supplement the design principles, and pages brimming with design principles, tips, and downloadable documents make this free resource relevant and rewarding.

Pages straight out of the printed book are available, as well. For example, there’s a matrix of key design principles and objectives in key design documents. The table sets the Urban Design Compendium’s seven aspects of urban design — places for people, enrich the existing, make connections, work with the landscape, mix uses and form, manage the investment, and design for change — against the design principles of By Design, the Princes Foundation, Responsive Environments, and the U.S.-based Project for Public Spaces (itself another valuable online resource).

So how does this fit into website design? It’s all about having a sound process, and then managing it well. I’ve seen both website and city design processes fall apart either because the process itself was flawed, or its implementation was not managed well. However, by taking advantage of available resources — and by using a proven process, attentively managed — the city created, or re-created, should find itself far more visceral than virtual.

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Tags: urban planningurban design

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