The building of cities – either from the sand and dirt or from the ashes of war – is always a dynamic process, and urbanists are constantly challenged with balancing aesthetics and functionality in city design. Associate professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), Brent D. Ryan, however, believes that more urbanists are abandoning this approach to urban design and are increasingly moving away from designs that are by and for the people. His book The Largest Art: A Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism, aims to be a design manifesto for urbanists looking to build more inclusive cities. 

In his book, Ryan explains how he believes urbanists are more often than not building cities as mega-projects that have very obvious oomph to them. The designs themselves, however, lack the diversity of city life and do not give cities room for inevitable change over time. In an interview with MIT News, Ryan says: “We need to adapt urban design to the kinds of cities and societies that we have. Perfection is not really achievable.”

He also believes that the popular model of urban design used by planners and urbanists alike lacks the plurality of a dynamic city. With the evolution that cities undergo over time, city dynamics, physical and social makeup, and demographic change, among other factors, need to be incorporated into urban design.

Ryan stresses on the importance of diversification and inclusion in urban design in his other work, comparing urban design to large-scale art projects. “It’s the largest of the arts, in a very real way,” he tells MIT. “We need to broaden our approaches and conceptions of urban design. If we stick with the unitary conception of urban design, we may not have too much urban design at all any more.”

Ideally, urban design should reflect a mix between urban theory and the dynamics of a city. Major hallmarks in urban planning – like the Burnham Plan for Chicago of 1909 or the Charter of Athens of 1933 – serve as design manifestos for urban planning today. With these plans and schemes, city officials are then able to make changes to cities accordingly. These plans and schemes, however, are responsible for problems faced in cities today like how automobile-dependent American cities are, for example. Ryan, however, believes that urban design needs to move away from what he calls the “hegemonic origin of the field” to one that incorporates the urban plurality of our cities and societies.

For cities that have been devastated by war or natural disasters and cities that undergo large-scale ideological changes, urbanists are not operating in a void. Alternatively, redesign of a city’s spaces builds on the previous configurations of the space – the residents, the city’s urban fabric, and existing architectural styles. Cities that are being built from scratch give urbanists more of an urban tabula rasa or clean slate to design.

There have been other attempts to alter the ideological guise of urban planning, which has given cities around the world the look and we feel that we know today. The Quito Papers, a call to action for architects, urban planners, and policymakers, is a move away from schemes like the Burnham Plan or the Charter of Athens. The Papers look to rethink, redesign, and readdress approaches to city design and tackle three different aspects of urban design that the authors think need to change.