Workshop on City Form

The Workshop on City Form invites a group of students to research themes on city form by dynamically relating formal theory to empirical analysis and urban design. This spring’s workshop will focus on developing key performance indicators for urban design. Following Kevin Lynch’s investigations of “Good City Form,” we explore how formal qualities of the built environment can be quantified and measured. We will particularly focus on measurable indicators that capture how development density, spatial configuration and land-use mixing jointly generate developments that support ‘car-lite’ lifestyles, where a significant portion of non-work trips can be achieved locally on foot; where longer commutes are enabled by sustainable public transport, and which feature context-sensitive massing solutions that integrate spatially and functionally with surrounding neighborhoods.

Rather than developing detailed urban design proposals for sites, the workshop will focus on studying a whole range of different urban form and land use configurations on given sites in an iterative design–analysis–redesign process, where we:

1.         Generate site massing and land-use scenarios
2.         Create metrics to analyze scenarios
3.         Show how the designs can be improved based on metrics.

Our aim will be to come up with meaningful ‘key performance metrics’ (KPIs), described in pseudocode, which have the potential to be further elaborated into a generative urban design software applications that automates the search for urban design scenarios computationally, applying the KPIs in each iteration in search for most fitting and elegant design outcomes. Each KPI should try to capture a clear and meaningful urban design quality. For example, a KPI could evaluate how a massing and land-use proposal can a) enable the site’s users achieve x% of all non-work trips locally on foot (to retail, food, service, entertainment and social destinations); b) measure how much public transit ridership a development is likely to produce, c) identify an economically viable development density for a given area, or d) evaluate how context-sensitive a given massing and land use solution is. 

The workshop challenges students to come up with critical and mutually complementary KPIs, a collection of which could describe a series of meaningful performance characteristics of an urban design scheme. Our emphasis will rest on capturing qualities that matter for ‘good urban design’, not necessarily qualities that lend themselves easily to measurement. Despite obvious challenges to codifying ‘good city form’, we will not shy away from trying and investigating new frontiers of design exploration that use iterative, rule-based urban modeling to search through a multitude of solutions that maximize important spatial qualities.

The workshop will be grounded in specific case-study sites, where performance metrics for a ‘car-lite’ mobility outcomes and context sensitivity can be studied first hand. The commuter rail towns around Boston are well suited for the challenge. The Massachusetts Bay Area Transit Authority’s (MBTA) oversight board has recently voted to implement an ambitious transformation of the commuter rail system, suggesting 15-minute headways on all lines and “subway-like” frequencies at inner city stations. The motion could not only deliver a long-anticipated upgrade to the MBTA commuter-rail service, but also catalyze significant transit-oriented development efforts around stations. We will seek to capitalize on this opportunity by investigating urban densification and design scenarios around selected stations: potentially Chelsea and Lynn stations on the Rockport Line. 

The workshop is divided into three phases: 

  1. The first phase will start by having participants produce schematic urban design massing and land use proposals for the sites using predefined elements and layers in Rhino (2 weeks). The different alternative designs for the same two sites will be collectively shared with all class participants, forming the first iteration of design scenarios, on which KPIs can be tested. 
  2. The next five weeks are spent on devising, testing and demonstrating KPIs on the available scenarios. Students are paired up in teams of two, where each team is challenged to propose a distinct and meaningful KPI, and to break it down into components and procedures necessary for its capture. The KPI should be demonstratively applied to each of the design scenarios produced in the first phase, using any analogue or digital method available, desirably resulting in pseudocode or specific procedural steps.
  3. During the last six weeks, the teams will work iteratively on improving a chosen deign scheme based on a specific KPI. What design parameters can be changed to improve the KPI? What is the best strategy to search through numerous iterations, capturing the KPI at each step? The workshop will end with a final presentation to stakeholders. Following the final presentation, a report will be prepared.