Urban Design I: Introduction

The lecture will cover urban development in the following cities Berlin, Sarajevo, Caracas, Athens, Cape Town, New York, Sao Paulo and Detriot. The format to analysis these cities will be Urban Stories, using different tools to understand the process and development in each.

Issues and Challenges

Housing is a major issue in most urban areas. Most buildings and most territory in cities consist of housing – “the heart and bones”. High-cost housing is a political decision. An alternative to it is cooperative housing (“Genossenschaftswohnen”) which allows to reduce prices. For instance, in Zürich 70% of housing is organised that way.

Another pressure on urban areas are refugees. Western countries underestimated the difficulties and where looking down on large cities in Africa and Latin America and South-East-Asia that dealt with a huge influx. However, the recent events have caused a similar pressure on Europe. Consequently, refugees transforms how urban areas are constructed and understood.

Buckminster Fuller called the Earth “Spaceship Earth” after seeing the first image of the “blue marble” brought back from the Apollo 17 mission.

Often, what is described as an individual city is actually situated with more than half of its size on its urban footprint outside the administratively denoted city.

The Chinese made the boldest urban decision in the Pearl Delta to create an urban area consisting of 250 million people. It means a lot of new construction, but also stress on the “blue marble”. On most billboards you see images of waterfront areas that are beautifully designed. However, most people in such an urban congregation will live in a more slum-like environment.

The former South African government created the Apartheid Urban Design Handbook that describes how to efficiently segregate different populations through urban design. Overcoming such an design is a difficult task.

Skyscrapers today are often only a façade. Architects are merely required to design a surface, the skeleton of the building as well as the location of the building are decided by developers. This means that the urban space often is cut apart by developers and used without looking for an overarching system.

Urbanisation was enabled by an overproduction of food, which allowed to use the aggregated goods to buy other goods.

The largest cities in the world have shifted from the heart of European Colonial Empires in the early 20th century to what was then villages in the hinterlands of Colonial properties. Chinese cities have shown tremendous growth such as Shenzhen which moved from a slow backwater to the 4th largest city in China.

“If humanity is to have a recognizable future, t can not be prolonging the past or the present social distribution and not growth would dominate the politics of the new millennium.” –  (Hobsbawm, 1995)

Facts about urbanisation have been presented before. However, the degree of urbanisation is not necessarily measured by development. Oil-rich countries have moved vast populations into urban environments. Poverty has moved from being a problem of the countryside to a problem of the urbanity.

A provocative claim is that China will urbanise Africa, Latin America and South-East-Asia. It could be considered a new form of colonialism (compared to European Colonialism) that is based on urban paradigms. Those new urban areas will be very asymmetric and socially unequal. This is not necessarily by design, but by the sheer scale of urbanisation. It can be traced to the fact that not everybody will get the same gain from economic development. For instance, in sweatshops local population will be paid as little as possible to extract the biggest possible margin before selling the final product. Aggregated these effects will drive inequality in new urbanisations.

The dimension and speed of urbanisation is beyond the control of human actors and will probably cause many problems down the road. Some have been sketched.


Hobsbawm, E. J. (1995). The age of extremes: A history of the world, 1914-1991. Pantheon Books.