Urban Form: The Path of Least Resistance

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The Harvard Yard in Cambridge is studied in landscape architecture classrooms as a model of a sensible and democratic “less is more” approach. People from many different walks of life are comfortable there, despite the fact that Harvard is one of the most exclusive Universities in the world.

The pathways are laid out based on how people travel: Along the path of least resistance, called “desire lines,” as if you pulled a string from the entrance of one building to another. Usually it’s a tough path to realizing great design, not the path of least resistance.

While a big barrier to “good design is a lack of creativity,” a designer also needs to communicate clearly and be dedicated to design. In my industry, an architect is often working with large groups of stakeholders with conflicting interests. From the president of the organization to the person in charge of maintenance, people have to make compromises and come to a consensus on a vision for the project.

Once the stakeholders’ goals have been distilled, the architect has to make sure the design complies with codes and regulations, is built within budget (low), and on schedule (quick). The design team goes through an iterative process where at each step, if gone unchecked, the building can slowly drift from the vision, say inclusive, beautiful and inspiring, to the path of least resistance, cheap and quick.

As a project develops, whether it’s development regulations, a public space, a piece of furniture, a logo, or a whole building, factors like economics can weigh heavier than those things that are harder to quantify like “inclusive, beautiful, and inspiring.”

It’s easier to measure the capital cost of something like a window (which is more expensive than the wall it sits in) and harder to measure benefits like how that window affects someone’s health and wellbeing. Across disciplines, designers widely agree that we need to work to foster and celebrate design culture in this province, “to become more connected to each other and to the public.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, creative professionals with appropriate training are frequently excluded from the design process. In Scandinavia, people would be appalled that a municipality wouldn’t have an urban planner on staff, or a well established product would have a logo that wasn’t designed by a graphic designer.

But here, that’s different. Over the past number of years, a dozen professional planners have been eliminated from governments, and logos get designed by any Tom, Dick or Harry.

There’s an optimism in the design community that things are changing for the better. The economic boom that happened here in close timing with the financial collapse elsewhere created an energy here. Whether people were coming back, or touching down for the first time, talented and driven individuals chose to make St. John’s their home.

This article is a two part series, the next of which focuses on how people are overcoming barriers and despite the challenges, are doing great design.

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Emily Campbell

Emily Campbell is the founder of the Wandering Pavilion, sits on the Public Awareness Committee of the Newfoundland and Labrador Architects Association, and works at Fougere Menchenton Architecture.

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