The elementary school in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland.

Designing the Humanistic City

Blogger: Beth Zacherle, Strategic Innovation Designer | Chicago, IL, USA
May 16, 2016

On May 4th, famed author and urban renewal activist Jane Jacobs would have been 100 years old. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was published while she battled to save her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village, from becoming a community devoid of “place”; developers had planned to demolish Washington Square Park and build a series of high-end high-rises and a massive freeway. Despite criticism upon the book’s release (Jacobs had no formal training in urban planning), her work in urban planning and creating place formed the foundation of how we talk about building communities today.

Making “place” is about strengthening the human qualities of a community—it’s social and cultural identity—to forge bonds between people and places because these are the things that shape the lives we want to live and the people we want to be. Our communities are as much a part of our identity as our own home.

Yet, communities are still drawn out block by block, establishing a physical identity by drawing boundaries and defining what happens within them. We design the components of our communities in isolation and hope the social and cultural identities of a place will fill in the gaps.

So, what if we turned our approach to community design inside out? What if we first created blueprints for social and cultural experiences and then let the physical identity fill in the gaps? What would our communities look like if they were designed around what we hear and taste? Around the moments that characterize our values?

In order to create these social and cultural blueprints, we have to understand both the context and the people. As designers, we are trained to look at the context outside of our boundary. But understanding the people we are designing for requires a completely different skillset. We need to spend time with them. We need to understand their values, their needs, and what gives them joy. We need to discover insights beyond what a traditional marketing analysis can provide. In doing so, we can create better, tailored solutions that forge the bond between people and place.

So what could this process of understanding the people we are designing for (a.k.a. human-centered design) look like at the scale of urban planning?

Imagine starting with a blank slate: a community that does not currently exist. We might start by investigating what exists around the new community, where there is a gap within current market offerings, and who might live, work, or play there. This first step is essential to understanding the context and defining potential components of a community, but it does very little to help us understand the people.

To understand the people we are designing for, we need to engage them in the process. We might go into their homes and interview them or observe them in their natural environment. We might try to understand: Do they seek out new adventures and like to experiment? Is wellness embedded in how they go about their daily lives? Do they use new information on a regular basis to inform the decisions they make?

And, most importantly, we need to always ask ‘why?’ The goal is to identify what social and cultural values unite people so we can build upon those values to create new, meaningful experiences.

HDR’s Strategic Innovation team is exploring this paradigm shift, and we are hoping to present it to the world at SXSW Eco this fall—you can make it happen by voting for us here!

(And, for those interested, here's a great resource on placemaking.)

Reader Comments (1)

Excellent read! Serious (and maybe stupid) question: are there opportunities to design cities from scratch? Or are we more looking to apply these principles to try to build density and identity within existing townships?

Another question: when do we hear about SXSW Eco??

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