Workshop on City Form

The 2020 Workshop on City Form--in partnership between the City Form Lab and Alphabet Sidewalk Labs--invites a group of students to focus on developing key performance indicators for urban design. Following Kevin Lynch’s investigations of “Good City Form,” the workshop explores 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 pseudo-code, 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 is 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.