Educating people on urban design is like the challenge of teaching Daniel-san, of the original Karate Kid movie, the intricacies of martial arts. While Daniel-san expects to immediately learn how to fight the Cobra Kai, Mr Miyagi insists on learning to wax the car and paint the fence properly before even throwing a punch. Likewise, showing someone a transect of a complete street can be frustrating for a normal person to understand.
As a city-geek, I have consumed articles and books on urbanism even though I studied linguistics in college. Still, the most enlightening and relatable book I’ve read has been The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, who in fact was not educated in urban planning. Jacobs emphasizes the experience of the city and embracing the chaotic reality of cramming multiple humans into a finite space.
The best way to educate people on urban design is to allow them to experience good urban form. Unfortunately many cities have forgotten how to value and appreciate their downtowns, which invariably used to be the walkable places we desire. Still, we have developed fantastic ways to illustrate how to interact with a complete urban form through placemaking events like PARK(ing) Day and the Better Block Project.
An outdoor market, for example, can function like a magic trick, where visitors shop at local vendors, listen to live music, and eat from a food truck. Meanwhile, they’re strolling in the middle of a street or parking lot that would normally be the realm of the automobile. After all, people enjoy exploring new places and experiencing something new. The goal is to get people to say, “Why isn’t it always like this?”
The average person already has too much on their mind. Between work, socializing, and family, people don’t care about the musings of the urban obsessed. To get people interested in good city design, we have to connect their work life, social life, and family life with positive experiences in the chaos of an urban environment.
In college, I wrote a thesis on how the brain learns the syntax of a second language. Afterwards, I attempted to teach Spaniards how to speak English through linguistic theory of sentence structures and the component parts of verb usage. The thing is, people just wanted to learn how to order steak and potatoes on vacation at a restaurant. I quickly realized that people paid me to teach the language and not linguistics.
Unlike Daniel-san, most people don’t have the patience to wax on or wax off. But if we can give them good experiences in fun places with people they enjoy, they will want well designed places even more.