Nowadays, it seems, we are all “urbanists.” All around the world, urbanization has become the object of intense focus in society and among a broad swath of academic and professional disciplines that far exceed the boundaries of traditional urban planning, theory, and practice. Such efforts are imbued with a burning desire to intervene, with a renewed sense that we can all be effective agents of change in how, where, and with whom we live, love, and learn. Yet, at the very moment that the urbanization is at the core of a global discourse, design practice finds itself increasingly irrelevant to the production of space.
While the air is thick with talk of “the city”, it seems the time is ripe for designersto lead, focus, and steer this discussion — for us to emerge from decades of intellectual slumber and post-critical production as handmaidens to capital, and to reclaim the urbanas both epistemological territory and object of instrumentalized knowledge. As increasingly large swaths of the urban territory are being produced not as acts of spatial design, but as economic and logistic organizations of the landscape, we ask how can design have agency in these discussions?
This is our moment. While design has the potential to be simultaneously socially, politically, and economically relevant — it is currently hamstrung by myopic disciplinary boundaries and ossified modes of practice. This is our call to action. Design practice and designers must become more entrepreneurial, more socially engaged, and more intellectually elastic to heed this call. We are interested in experimenting with new forms of practice by becoming more directly involved in social justice through pro-bono or public interest work; by expanding horizontally to reclaim disciplinary territory lost to consultants, contractors, and developers; by expanding vertically to lay claim to more parts of the development process; expanding the scale of design to the regional, mega-regional, or global scales; increasing the scope of design to include broader processes, infrastructures, and territories; and leveraging new technologies and processes of making and craft to more directly engage in the full process of spatial production. Within these experiments, we are on a broader quest for agency in the world — for the right and the powerto intervene effectively on the territory.
It is thus that the question of agency becomes paramount to any contemporary design discussion of urbanism. Specifically, what new forms of agency can be made available to us as designers, through the deepening of our own disciplinary knowledge, tools, and expansion of intellectual territory? Accordingly, what we have begun to call “design agency” has two connotations: agency in terms of legitimacy - the right or responsibility to act as designers; and agency in terms of ability - of having the right tools or capacity to intervene. For us, Design Legitimacy originates from a position that the act of design must precede and exceed the production of the bounded object. Design Ability leverages the analytical tools, representational modes, forms of practice, and concrete spatial products that are uniquely available to us as designers to assert ourselves in the Neo-Liberal organization of space.
Design Agency encompasses both legitimacy and ability; therefore, the questions that must be unpacked are both in regard to the foundation of, as well as the nature of, this particular kind of agency.This quest for agency will necessarily push design thinking beyond the confines of the object and the academic context, and prepare future urbanists to directly engage the larger systems, processes, and social conditions that will open design to an expanded field of urban practice.
This expanded field is the territory of The Urban Works Agency. Our Agency is thus both organization and action, and this is the intellectual terrain that we are setting forth to explore in this first issue of our official mouthpiece, The Agent. In upcoming issues we will continue to both interrogate what urban agency is, as well as explore the various models of practice, intellectual frameworks, and formal organizations that can help us stake out this new territory. Each issue will be thematized according to one or more of these or future topics, and will feature interviews, excerpts of articles, new writing, and featured projects and representations by our Urban Agents. We are optimistic about the future without being utopian. We are concerned with the material production of urban space without succumbing to solely the efficiency of economics and engineering. We are confident in spatial practice’s role in larger questions of urbanism without enforcing disciplinary silos. We are calling for Action through Design.
— Neeraj Bhatia & Christopher Roach, Co-Coordinators