News - 2 January 2020

UNS Urban Interview: Work & Urban Design

Are cities a means to an end? The end being human productivity? What is the relationship between urban design and work? To answer these questions, we need to understand who the worker is, when and where they work, as well as what it means to be productive today. As we change from valuing physical labor to knowledge and even emotional work, we need to consider how cities are being re-designed to bring about this kind of value.


We sat with three members of our urban design team, Dana Behrman, Maria Zafeiriadou and Misja van Veen to understand what the changing world of work will mean for urban design, and what we can do to bring about, as Jane Jacobs put it, the “organized chaos” that make cities alluring, exciting and attractive places for workers to live in.

How does Urban Design and Work Relate?

Dana:

Cities are formed throughout history for many reasons, whether it be religion, war, access to resources... But mostly, cities have a very important component of economic growth, and they are strategically located to facilitate that. When we think about more recent history, the modern concept of “work” and cities become closely linked. For example, cities were designed in more recent history around specific companies or sectors. And as our way of working is changing, we’re finding that these “company towns” are at a turning point. Our challenge is to accommodate the changes that we see in the work sector and the knowledge economy. We have done several proposals recently to reimagine how these “company towns” can be integrated better into the city as a whole, and what we are really trying to do is to transform them into vibrant places that go beyond their original design. The need for constant flexibility and constant change of places is something we are trying to design into cities.

Maria:

Work is never a secluded, isolated element. It is always part of a bigger system, connected to mobility, public infrastructure, living, or even, to what we call the “third place” between working and living, like cafes, libraries, and public spaces where interactions happen. A lot of cities need to make a change now and reimagine how they should function, and that’s kind of our role, to see how this could happen and how the working spaces fit into that. We think about change a lot and about how a city can be an organized framework that will allow for change and flexibility.

Dana:

The beauty of a city is that it can be chaotic and complex, in addition to being rich in all these different types of working and living. It’s like what Jane Jacobs said, cities are organized chaos! But when it comes to designing streets and plazas or infrastructure, this organized chaos needs to allow for these economic forces of work to function.

Do we ever design specifically with workers in mind?

Dana:

To answer that question, we need ask: what is work? And what is the worker? It’s transitioning. It had transitioned already from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy. And we need to understand how that change impacts the way we design (or re-design) cities. People now no longer need to work in factories, instead they are working flexibly, at any time and at any place. In many ways the city is a workplace in itself.

Misja:

In general, we see a shift happening, where the focus is moving from fitting an area to one aspect of the human existence (i.e. working) towards accommodating the whole range of multifaceted personhood. People are complex, and work is only one facet of their lives. You see a shift from labor (we have a body and we use that to work) towards the mind (we produce knowledge for the information economy) to now more emotional work. Data processing is done faster by a computer, but emotional work is the only thing that a human alone can do. To allow for that kind of work, we need to design places for the whole human – not just one side of them. So, we take a very different approach compared with the old-fashioned method of making a space for a person to work as efficiently as possible. To make cities work we can no longer view people in this one-dimensional and monofunctional way. People are not machines, and we want the spaces we design to be used in the best way possible to encourage social health, so that means designing vibrant, mixed-use spaces.

What does bad design mean for workers?

Maria:

Monofunctionality could be an example of problematic planning and design. We faced this issue with our work for Hilversum, which was built as a specialized campus space outside the city. We were called in to make this space more multifunctional, to turn Hilversum a vibrant neighborhood. A media city rather than just a media park. There is also a dimension of festivalisation to our design for Hilversum: it is not only a place where people live and work but also a place that can host events, where people can visit on a Sunday afternoon.

Misja:

Exactly as Maria was saying, there is very much a need to create multifunctional, flexible and adaptive urban plans. But good urban design is also about creating the framework for how architecture shapes the urban experience. Within the urban plan of the Oosterdoeks Eiland here in Amsterdam, there was a demand for vibrant transparent plinths in buildings. The ground floor of the major offices had to be transparent, and there had to be a public function that is accessible and lively. As an architect, that’s exactly what you need to make your building a vibrant spot. If there is a discussion between stakeholders on that point, the urban plan rules really help the architectural project to become lively.

How does Amsterdam shape up as a city to work in?

Dana:

Amsterdam is so wonderful on many levels. It’s walkable, there are parks, it might be small but I think every city has something different to offer different people. As a whole if a city can offer a good quality of life, a safe environment, walkable places, and an opportunity to create some kind of social network and opportunity, then it doesn’t matter!

Misja:

What I really like about Amsterdam is that it has a human scale whilst still housing almost one million inhabitants. I agree the level of services could be higher with a larger targeted group, but the combination of human scale and good environment, being able to reach greenery and recreation within biking distance, the level of cultural services is also high. The city is also beautiful, with the water completely integrated into the fabric of the city.

Do you have tips for young urban designers?

Maria:

There are several good authors I’d recommend reading, like Jane Jacobs of course. But another interesting approach would be to think about “third places”, referring back to Ray Oldenburg. As ways of working become more flexible, we need to understand this social infrastructure and these third spaces as spaces of encounter and exchange of ideas and knowledge more than ever.

Dana:

As Maria said, read Jane Jacobs! She was a bottom up planner, she advocated for things that we agree with, thinking about the communities and empowering them, take decisions about the spaces around them. But most importantly, walk in cities, and observe, especially on the ground level. Observe the walking pace of people on streets and how they differ from place to place.  What can different public spaces offer pedestrians? Where are the shadows and lights? What about greenery?  What people are doing in these places? These are questions that urban designers should have a deep understanding of…