In his 2012 book Design After Decline, Brent D. Ryan, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, called for new design approaches in deindustrialized cities struggling to rebuild. Ryan expands his urban design thinking to propose a worldwide theory of “plural urbanism” in The Largest Art (forthcoming from the MIT Press), from which this excerpt is taken.

In a 2006 essay, “The End(s) of Urban Design,” architectural critic Michael Sorkin declared that the discipline of urban design was at a “dead end.” [. . .] Sorkin depicted urban design not only as intellectually bankrupt, but also as shamefully unable to confront the urgent problems of the day.

The decade or so since Sorkin wrote his essay has been one of turmoil, at least superficially, in the urban design discipline. Events like continued urbanization and the world’s warming climate pose challenges for urban designers in tandem with other professions. But within the discipline itself, the fundamental dilemma posed by Sorkin, of a discipline unable to reconcile “theoretical debate” with “human needs,” has remained unresolved. The “end(s)” of urban design remain where they were 10 years ago.

The Largest Art provides a new theoretical and practical understanding of urban design. It does so by reexamining the discipline’s relationship to urban space and urban populations and by reframing urban design as a “building art” that accepts those elements of cities that are beyond designers’ direct control—other buildings, other owners, other actors—and that then incorporates these elements into urban design. By incorporating the city’s plural elements— those many elements imagined for more than a single design or by a single designer—urban design becomes a plural art that is more powerful and wide-ranging, more influential and beneficial, even as it becomes more democratic, participatory, open-ended, and infinite. Understanding urban design as a plural art may sound utopian, but it is actually the opposite—it is eminently practical. [. . .]

Many theorists and practitioners have recognized elements of urban design’s plural nature in the past. Famed urbanist Jane Jacobs identified urban design’s plural qualities when she called for redevelopment to reconcile “life with art,” as did MIT professor Kevin Lynch when he spoke of “city design” instead of urban design. [. . .] Ultimately this book may be understood as a manifesto, a call for urban design’s true plural nature to be understood and acknowledged, and for urban design’s independence from other building arts, particularly architecture, to be recognized once and for all. In doing so, this book moves urban design past its “ends” and reopens the door for an urban future in which design can encompass all cities.

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