Producing Publicness: Investigating the dialectics of unintended consequences in urban design

Elahe Karimnia wanted to understand and solve the gap between design intentions and outcomes in relation to quality of publicness in urban spaces. She found that rather than being a problem to solve, the gap provides a potential that should be welcomed.

What is the topic of your Doctoral Thesis?

The topic of my Doctoral thesis is: “Producing Publicness: Investigating the dialectics of unintended consequences in urban design- practices in Stockholm and Malmö”.

Why did you choose this topic?

As our cities are becoming more diverse, the need of socially inclusive and engaging urban places is quite clear. The qualities of public spaces, which contribute to civic infrastructure of cities, promoting well-being and enriching social sustainability are, however threatened by the pressure of development and produced through the competitive economy and project-based urban design.

I have a background in architecture and I am passionate about cities and design potentials in supporting people’s fundamental needs and desires in urban spaces. Working for some years in practice and being involved in challenges of design and production process, I was always intrigued with so-called gap between design intentions and outcomes. Becoming part of the research project: Urban Form and Human Behaviour, I got this chance to understand this gap deeper in relation to producing the quality of publicness in urban spaces.

What are the most important results?

In my research I found appropriation of public space within everyday practice as a key to analyse the effect of each process in supporting or creating constraints for tranforming publicness. Appropriation of space happens at different levels: from individual's togetherness with collective actions and memories, to spontaneous encounters, and to political expressions.

Revisiting public territories through appropriations showed limitation of 'Project-based' urban design. Spaces are treated as geographies of responsibility, rather than being understood as a set of socio-spatial relationships; so established public territories and functions do not concern the socio-political influences, as they intend to. By knowing the nature of publicness as stage of flux, urban design should understand its making as a process of enabling and designing for transformation. The stages, influences, knowledge and roles of transformative practice is different.

Urban design requires a shift in thinking throughout its practice: design of publicness would not end by creating physical space. Enabling different ways of appropriating the space provides a constant and engaging dialogue between citizens and their city spaces. This way urban practice designs for appropriation of space and for users to become ‘makers’ of publicness.

Did you come across something unexpected during your thesis research?

My entire PhD subject was about observing unintended or unexpected things that happen inevitably in design process. This could help me reflecting on the personal journey of my PhD, welcoming unexpected results, reframing the problem, and perhaps continuing with no assumption. The most obvious example could be the intention-outcome gap in urban design that I first framed it as problem and myself finding a solution for it. However, I learned, during the process, that this gap is actually the potential that should be welcomed.

Who will benefit from your results?

I would say mostly urban planners and design practitioners who are engaged with the spatial production process, architects who design meeting places and public buildings, and scholars who pursue interests in future of urban design to be a transformative practice, and critical approach to assessing the publicness of urban places.

What will you do next?​

I am passionate to work on social sustainability to be enhanced and achieved through urban development process; new alternatives for enriching togetherness, social encounters, and expressions in public spaces. I believe the future of city spaces requires us to design the design process, towards more just and informative practice.

Elahe Karimnia defended her doctoral thesis Producing Publicness: Investigating the dialectics of unintended consequences in urban design - practices in Stockholm and Malmö in the subject area in Planning and Decision Analysis with specialisation in Urban and regional studies in June 2018.

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