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Montague, LM., 2014.

Designing the Urban: The role of theory in the individual creative process

Output Type:Thesis or dissertation
Presented at:The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh College of Art

Acting within the context of multiple constraints (site, budget, brief, clients, users, public policy and regulation), the urban designer is required to respond to various and sometimes conflicting interests in "...the symbolic attempt to express urban meaning in certain urban forms." (Castells, 1983). In this complex situation some design decisions are determined by the inherited context. However, when a decision cannot be determined this way the designer must make a judgement. These may be made arbitrarily, but it is more likely that the individual uses, for example, experience, education, episodic knowledge, currently accepted paradigms of the field, or theories in urban design to form the bases of judgements, and subscription to them may be explicit or implicit.
The research question this thesis addresses is: 'In which ways might theory be used in the individual design process of urban design?' Its aim is to explore ways in which theories in urban design influence the process of urban design and the extent to which they may inform design decisions in addition to the other constraints which a designer must consider. The objectives are: to review literature about the relationship between theory and design; to examine the role of theory in the individual creative process of urban design; and to reflect on the process of design in order to conclude how it was informed by theory.
A review of literature about the design process and urban design theory considers the current state of knowledge. This provides the context for the investigation. An appraisal of research by design methodologies identifies an approach based upon Donald Schön's 'The Reflective Practitioner' (1983) as a suitable means to address the aims of this research: This is executed through the generation of an urban design and accompanying commentary which records the design activity, followed by an analysis of and reflection on the design and commentary offering insights into the use of theory within the process.
Since the research did not require a specific location for the design, a number of alternatives were considered. Croydon (in Greater London) was selected as a place with sufficient scope for an urban design intervention due to the current proposals being pursued by the local authority and the opportunities for redevelopment. The design process is in three sequential parts: a socio-economic, cultural and physical site evaluation; a development framework which is primarily two-dimensional and textual; and a masterplan which is a predominantly three-dimensional, short to medium term spatial possibility for part of the framework area.
The commentary that accompanies the design process details each step in the process to build an evidence base of design activity. This describes the actions undertaken and the reasons for those actions. Each entry is then analysed retrospectively according to four categories determined by the interests of the research aim: the type of design activity; the type of influence acting upon it; whether this influence is explicit or implicit; and, where theory appears to have been an influence, what type of theory.
Reflection on the urban design, commentary and analysis appears to indicate that theory's influence in the creative process of urban design is distinctive, although it is subservient to a variety of other influences. Apparently, the more conceptual and strategic the stage of design, the more extensive and explicit theory's influence is. It appears that in a conscious manner, a theory's principles can be employed directly or interpreted in a new scenario. Conversely, the more spatial and detailed the stage of design, the more tacit and fragmented theory's involvement appears to be. It is often implicit, embedded within the guiding principles that the individual designer exercises when generating and evaluating ideas, evidenced in the thought processes and decisions that are made.
While these findings are specific to an individual and the way that individual designs and evaluates the design process, they do confirm the use of theory in the urban design process and may act as indicators of trends in the relationship between theory and practice in urban design.