The critique of overly positive, deterministic models of architecture and city planning in the latter 20th century, alongside the emergence of urban design, saw urbanists of all stripes adopt new, empirical bases for their work. A new empirical urbanism has emerged over the past two generations, drawing habits of mind and methods of observation from the natural and social sciences, and making use of emerging forms of statistical and visual analysis. Seemingly steeped in the observation, systematic documentation, and artful analysis of the city, as given, this new empiricism understands cities and other urbanized territories as existing phenomena whose complex geographic, socioeconomic, morphological and historical dimensions must be understood as a precondition to any designed intervention.
For our purposes, Empirical Urbanism is a framework for revealing the sometimes hidden philosophical assumptions, and design alibis among a diverse group of urban theories and practices that while often thought to represent opposing ideologies, share an empirical approach. The most influential among these include Jane Jacobs elevation of the ad hoc, mercantile city in the Death and Life of the Great American City, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s “Learning from…” Las Vegas and Levittown studies, Ian McHarg’s ecological mapping in Design with Nature, Rem Koolhaas’s “Retroactive Manifesto” for Manhattan and all of the more recent hyphenated urbanisms, including the “New”, “Everyday”, and “Landscape” Urbanism. Other, newer theories and practices, such as those that work within a market-driven analysis of urban development, or that use data as a basis for civic engagement, have yet to be as formally defined.
Today, facing new economic, environmental, and cultural challenges, there are intimations of an urban practice that foregrounds systemic design thinking, the instrumentality of data, and the agency of big picture planning. This symposium will interrogate this trend, and ask how urbanism as an art and a set of practices may gain from more explicitly deciphering the relationship between the ways we characterize the past and present city, with how we go about projecting alternate futures.
Our title notwithstanding, we do not imagine an end to empirical urban research. Rather, the discussion and debates we hope to sponsor have the aim of repositioning observation-based practice, and airing new approaches to seeing and designing the city. To this end, we will cast a critical eye toward how, for example, fictionalized accounts of the ordinary city, mapping as a mode of composition, the bias and biasing of data, the use and misuse of history, and the leveraging of the marketplace and real-estate exchange, can all be understood as strategies that may require empirical grounding, but also bring more subjective values, differing modes of judgment, and creative impulses into play.