I've been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania's Design School to study a 3-year Masters of Landscape Architecture. My day job currently focuses on helping to design crime and terrorism from urban developments but wish to broaden my impact.

I identified a way to do this is to become a design generalist rather than specialist. Architects, Landscape Architects, and Urban Designers specialize in the practice of Design but they traverse a very wide range of problems, challenges, and disciplines.

As such, I want to use this a period of study at Design School to explore how urban design can be used to improve the near and and further future. I envisage investigating how the design and planning of human settlements can utilized to increase civilizational resilience through greater urban resilience, how public space can promote of positive values and democracy, and the role of our environments for improving human well-being. edit: someone rightfully highlighted this area has the potential to improve animal well-being too through ensuring cities do not cause animals to suffer. My overarching thought is that there is a wide range of impacts this profession can have through influencing design practices globally.

I've been looking for funding opportunities and wondered if there are any scholarships or funds worth looking at? I've looked at Open Phil and EAF among others but my desired track does not seem to fit into many of these funds - or else they are looking to fund projects rather than career activities.

So what's the value of Urban Design? It seems to be an interesting area with regards to EA and I think the design process and the skills of designers could be leveraged across a range of applications for good. Here are some thoughts:

  • Every single human essentially exists in a physical environment, the design of which has a strong influence on their access to basic resources to survive, economic opportunities, as well as, well-being and self-actualization
  • Cities have been the engines of society - 80% of global GDP is currently generated in urban areas and provide for unquantifiable cultural and knowledge exchange.
  • The vast majority of humans will continue to live in a urban area (68% by 2050 according to UN projections)
  • Approximately 50–63% of the newly expanded urban land is expected to occur on current croplands (Xia Li et al., 2020)
  • Therefore, ensuring that our settlements and living environments are sustainable, resilient to natural and anthropogenic disasters, and while meeting our needs, is a species-wide issue.
  • It is credible for one person to have a disproportionate and global impact through influencing approaches to design. An example is Jane Jacobs whose ideas essentially established the New Urbanism which has been the predominant design philosophy for the past 50 years now.  A great quote I love from her is “When we deal with cities...we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.... When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy."
  • One example of EA applied in the context of cities is the Charter City concept which focuses on the argument that poor governance causes poverty and so a better governed city can lead to sustained economic growth and poverty alleviation. Additionally you can read Open Phil's shallow dive on Land Use. Charter Cities centre around the output of economic growth. What they mention less is the need for any charter city to have high ecological and human-wellbeing outputs.  How is this achieved? Through the design and planning of urban environment. The Charter City needs designers and planners to ensure these places are sustainable and human-centered.
  • Here's Qianhai Water City near Shenzhen, an example of an high-density, ecologically focused and human-centric city that Landscape Architect, James Corner, designed. It's currently being tested at neighbourhood level.
  • Beyond Charter Cities, I think that design has could contribute (my plan is to use my studies to identify areas to pursue).
  • Daily connection with nature (through the provision of green spaces, green infrastructure (essentially natural features integrated into the urban realm) has the potential to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety in humans. Public space can decrease loneliness through facilitating social interactions.

Can one Architect, Landscape Architect, or Urban Designer have a big impact?

Yes. I think designers fit in with this idea fabulously. Take the example of a typical project.

A design team of 5 is commissioned to develop the masterplan or an urban strategy for a new district. Said district is home to 50,000 people at any one time. The design team develop a vision and co-ordinates a number of specialists to provide the technical input so the plan can be viably carried out. This single project lasts for several generations and generates wider economic growth for the wider city and country. 

'Yes', you say, but designers will not often be working on project that large. Let's think about a single (but notable) piece of public space. The New York Highline is a park built on a disused elevated railway line in New York City. Its about 1.5 miles long. The park sees 8 million visitors a year. While the High-line is a popular attraction in New York, it shows the magnitudes of numbers a single project can impact, and resultingly, the economic, ecological and social impact.

So all-in-all I would propose a designer can easily have a disproportionately large impact.

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Another potential application of an urban design background is in wild animal welfare: some aspects of city planning might predictably affect the number of urban wild animals living there and their quality of life.

I didn't immediately think of this but that's a great thought.

There is quite a lot of interest (anecdotally speaking - I don't have the numbers) of integrating nature into the urban realm. Depending on country, planning rules will require a ecological impact assessment. 

At a larger scale - some thinkers push to the notion that the way to go is to find how we can recraft cities into a nature/urban hybrid so both humans, animals, plants, and other organisms can all thrive together.

If you're interested in this topic, the New Landscape Declaration - a declaration written by Landscape Architects with a collection of essays has more ideas on the value of this area:  https://www.lafoundation.org/resources/2017/11/new-landscape-declaration-book