Redesigning Cities

Principles, Practice, Implementation

By Jonathan Barnett, FAICP

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Too often, no one is happy with new development: Public officials must choose among unappealing alternatives, developers are frustrated and the public is angry. But growing political support for urban design, developers' interest in community building and successful examples of redesigned cities all over the U.S. are hopeful signs of change.

Barnett explains how design can reshape suburban growth patterns, revitalize older cities, and retrofit metropolitan areas where earlier development decisions went wrong. He describes in detail specific techniques, materials, and technologies that should be known (but often aren't) to planners, public officials, concerned citizens, and others involved in development.

This book is recommended reading for planners preparing to take the AICP exam.

Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
Jan. 31, 2003
APA Planners Press

Table of Contents


Prologue: The new politics of urban design

1. Principles • Community — life takes place on foot • Liviability — urbanism old & new • Mobility — parking, transit & urban form • Equity — deconcentrating poverty, affordable housing, & environmental justice • Sustainability — smart growth versus sprawl

2. Practice • Designing new neighborhoods • Reinventing inner-city neighborhoods • Restoring and enhancing neighborhoods • Redesigning commercial corridors • Turning edge cities into real cities • Keeping downtowns competitive

3. Implementation • Designing the public environment • Shaping cities through development regulations • Organization structures for urban design





New Urban News, April/May 2003
Reviewed by Philip Langdon

In his sixth book in 30 years, urban designer Jonathan Barnett shows how new urbanist ideas about streets, neighborhoods, mobility, parking and other aspects of metropolitan life are being woven into the goals and techniques of professional planners.

Barnett's motto for urban planning might well be the one coined by Danish architect Jan Gehl: "Life takes place on foot." A professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant with Wallace, Roberts & Todd of Philadelphia, Barnett traces how planners went from basing neighborhood designs on walking distances and neighborhood schools in the 1930s; to questioning the relevance of neighborhoods in the late 1960s; to returning recently to the idea of planning neighborhoods around a five-minute walk--including, when possible, an elementary school.

He knows what sorts of numbers are needed if new urban development is to function successfully. If, for example, you want children to walk to their elementary school, then a density of 12 people per acre, which is considered moderately high by today's standards, is too low, according to Barnett. Eight families an acre are needed to make a neighborhood school feasible, Barnett says. (He notes, however, an alternative: return to building elementary schools for just 200 or so pupils. Though education experts generally consider a 200-pupil school inefficient, it is "small enough that the principles could know all the students and most of their families.")

Barnett surveys the evolution of urban design standards and practices in the US and advocates ideas that can be used to reclaim cities, improve older suburbs, and manage growth in developing areas. He discusses interesting designs and plans produced in recent years for many well-known developments, ranging from Addison Circle, in Addison, Texas, to the Park DuValle HOPE VI project in Louisville, to the recovered riverfront of downtown Providence. He also presents innovative plans from communities that are rarely in the national spotlight, such as Wildwood, Missouri.

Barnett ascribes too much importance to zoning — claiming for instance, that zoning produced the commericial strips found on arterial roads in every US metropolitan area. I would argue that these strips would appear even if there were no zoning ordinances. All that's needed is a mass population getting around in private vehicles — untethered to the transit systems that traditionally concentrated riders in more compact centers.

Barnett has been pusing the argument that zoning causes commercial strips for years. My hunch is that he holds onto this notion because of its symmetry: If zoning caused the strip, then, in Barnett's formulation, a different zoning can tame the strip and give us compact, walkable centers again.

Such quibbles notwithstanding, this book is a first-rate guide to intelligent contemporary planning. Barnett is an old hand who offers wise judgements about what planners and urban desiners should aim for and how they can accomplish it.

Reviewed by Kevin K. Pierce in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Winter 2004, Vol. 70, No. I

In this brief but ambitious volume, Jonathan Barnett aims for nothing less than teaching us the fundamentals of city redesign. In 300 pages, he covers five principles of urban design, shows city design in practice (in contexts ranging from greenfield development to the inner city), and outlines certain approaches to implementation. Amazingly, he hits the target squarely in the center and manages to place the subject within a revealing and remarkable historical/theoretical context at the same time.

What is design? Barnett, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania and an urban design practitioner with WRT in Philadelphia, does not venture a definition; he lets it evolve. The prologue, "The New Politics of City Design," lays out the basic issues. Reacting to a proposed ring road, community residents on St. Louis's periphery put down their collective foot. "Using their common sense and their observations" (p. i) of road development elsewhere, they determine that the new highway would change their home turf completely. They take control and create a new town: Wildwood, MO.

Nearly every place has a history of human habitation. Clearly, Barnett sees the design of cities, towns, suburbs, and even greenfield sites as remodeling projects. The physical form of each was created — "designed" — by an abstract combination of transportation plans, government policy, municipal or county building and development rules, financing structures, and of course, the market.

Central to Barnett's thesis is the notion that urban design has a new and growing constituency that is beginning to understand that the physical form of their communities is central to their happiness and that they can influence this form. Barnett identifies and discusses five central principles: community, livability, mobility, equity, and sustainability. In the process he gently debunks many contemporary myths of urban life, for instance: The car and the Internet will eliminate the human desire for public sociability, the free market created our best places and will be our salvation, the concentrations of poverty that occur in many areas of the country are somehow the fault of the poor. His description of how federal mortgage and highway policies essentially created urban slums is particularly revealing.

Barnett makes effective reference to much of the key literature of the discipline. The work of Ian McHarg (Design with Nature, Doubleday, 1969) and Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter (Collage City, MIT, 1978) can be felt throughout. He surveys the history of urban designùfrom the effects of Modernism to the resurgence of traditional urbanismùand uses it to develop the key ideas of the book in a highly balanced fashion. The section on practice expands this approach, showing how urban design has evolved and is used today. Barnett covers a range of topics including designing new neighborhoods, enhancing older ones, reviving the inner city, and designing commercial corridors. His treatments are brief yet comprehensive, show many built examples, and provide many cogent and useful checklists for action.

The third part of the book covers implementation. It reminds us that, for all our thoughtfulness, we have rarely understood the true design implications of our policies and plans. It provides valuable ideas for improvement, and Barnett makes good sense when discussing the municipal political structures that can help ensure good outcomesùfor example, the town or city mayor should be the primary guardian of urban design.

Yet Barnett overlooks serious questions of implementation. Cities may engage in robust community participation, but rebuilding neighborhoods requires money. Developers still look for the easy deal. Suburban communities at the urban fringe may attempt to control growth, but frequently relax principle in favor of enhanced tax revenue for important community needs. Cooperative governance is unlikely in places such as the Chicago region, where flat, available farmland goes on as far as the eye can see, and new roads are a chief form of political pork. Even places well known for growth management have found that development inside the boundary often takes the form of conventional sprawl. Perhaps Barnett will help answer these questions in the next book.

In the meantime, the signs are that neighborhood residents are realizing they must become primary advocates for good city design. This book can help them, their municipal leaders, and all students of urban design. Public advocacy for good city design is growing. Given the American preoccupation with image, it is surprising it has taken this long to see what is in front of our noses.

The following review appeared in the February 2004 issue of CHOICE:

Barnett offers a primer that belongs in the hands of elected officials, members of planning and zoning commissions, and interested citizens committed to creating more humane places to live and work. As the subtitle indicates, the book is divided into three parts. The first, "Principles," consists of five chapters devoted to community, livability, mobility, equity, and sustainability; the second, "Practice," consists of six chapters addressing design issues in neighborhoods, commercial corridors, edge cities, and downtowns; the third, "Implementation," examines the public realm and the regulatory environment. Each chapter is illustrated with carefully chosen examples of designs that have enhanced communities or, in the case of urban redevelopment, highway construction and sprawl that have detracted from the duality of metropolitan life. For more than 35 years Barnett has been one of the most intelligent thinkers and writers concerned with the design of cities, suburbs, and regions. Here he provides a thoughtful assessment of how the practice of urban design has changed since the heyday of urban renewal and presents a careful analysis of the impact of public policy on the designed landscape. Nicely illustrated. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels.

— D. Schuyler, Franklin & Marshall College