Field Notes on Neuroscience and the Poetics of Sustainable Public Space

By Doug Kelbaugh, FAIA, FCNU 2016 Topaz Laureate

First let me say how jealous I am of this book. Having written one on a similar subject, I’m stunned that the book is full of color photographs and charts. This book’s format is also handsome, with well laid-out pages. The book’s rounded corners and pebbled cover add to its lustre.

The subtitle – Field Notes on Neuroscience and the Poetics of Sustainable Public Space – is telling: the book ranges from science to poetics, which is an unusably broad spectrum. As Margaret Crawford opines on the back cover of the book, “Using insights from neuroscience and detailed case studies of real places, the authors convincingly demonstrate a new approach to public space, using empathy and embodiment to design the sensory and material quality of places.” The book focuses the human aspects of urban design, enriching the reader’s understanding of contemporary theory and practice. It amplifies our innate desire for finding meaning in the places we inhabit.

The writing is accessible, clear and well-balanced. The book is made all-the-more inviting by its brevity. It’s 232 pages, including appendices. The beautifully illustrated case studies focus on a new and interesting array of public spaces. The book clarifies and elaborates on the importance of good public space, especially in the U.S., also with exemplary examples in Europe. The public realm in America is not as strong as in European cities, but it has improved in recent decades, as we have come to see its design as more than a single use issue.

The many sketches and diagrams, which were done by lead author Harrison Fraker, are compelling. They elucidate the various elements and qualities that are critical to shaping spaces in which people will not only enjoy other people but also spend more time with friends and meet strangers. The creation of pleasant microclimates and spatial delight is essential to making cities desirable and livable. Why it this so important? Because, as I elaborate in my latest book – THE URBAN FIX: Resilient Cities in the War against Climate Change Heat Islands and Overpopulation – the planet benefits from urbanization. Specifically, urban residents may be wealthier with bigger carbon footprints than rural residents, but they live and work in more energy-efficient buildings and they have fewer children. Both help slow climate change.

Harrison Fraker and I go way back. We both studied architecture at Princeton, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Lance Brown, a founder of CSU, was a teacher there at the time. Harrison and I both had architectural offices in town. We competed for clients and awards. It was typically friendly competition, but it sometimes became contentious. Our careers have uncannily paralleled each other. We both left Princeton to lead architecture schools - Fraker at Minnesota and UC Berkely and me at the Universities of Washington and Michigan. We both instituted urban design programs, as our thinking and writing slowly evolved from the architectural to the urban scale. All the while we’ve been close friends, having traveled with our wives to places as far away as Russia and Africa. My academic, professional and personal life have been enriched by this collaborative/competitive rivalry and friendship.

About the Author:
Professor Kelbaugh received a B.A. Magna cum Laude and an M. Arch degree from Princeton University, and then led Kelbaugh + Lee from 1977 to 1985, an architecture firm that won 15 design awards and competitions. Architecture Chair at the University of Washington, and then Dean the University of Michigan, then V.P. of Design and Planning for a development company in Dubai, working on major projects in the Middle East, SE Asia, Europe and Africa. He was awarded the 2016 Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, the highest award in the field. He’s authored or edited numerous books, most recently “THE URBAN FIX: Resilient Cities in the War against Climate Change, Heat Islands and Overpopulation”.


Resilient Cities in the War against Climate Change, Heat Islands and Overpopulation

By Harrison Fraker, FAIA, 2014 Topaz Laureate

The role of cities in combating climate change and the urban heat island effect is complex, in some cases contradictory, and underdeveloped. Doug Kelbaugh in the Urban Fix gives us the most comprehensive and definitive discussion of how these complexities and contradictions can be turned into assets in the fight against climate change. Indeed he argues that cities have inherent assets, qualities and opportunities that make them, “our last, best hope”.

Through their consumption of energy and resources and the handling of waste, cities are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Yet paradoxically, because of their density, walkability, bike-ability and use of public transportation, in many cases they have a lower carbon footprint per person than the suburbs. At the same time their density contributes to an urban heat island (UHI) effect that can reach temperatures 12 – 15 F hotter than rural areas. The UHI effect exaggerates the impact of blistering heat waves that have killed thousands of people around the globe. As the recent IPCC report warns, the frequency and severity of these events, hard-wired by the green house gas emissions already in the atmosphere, will increase as emissions grow and the planet continues to warm. While this is not the only challenge caused by global warming, it is among the most severe; and because it is acutely felt by the residents of cities, it may be, as Kelbaugh points out, a visceral call to action.

Anticipating the urgency of this challenge, Kelbaugh devotes much of the book to this topic. He gives a comprehensive discussion of the causes of the UHI effect (waste heat from buildings, vehicles and people and the material properties, densities and geometry of cities) and strategies of mitigation (including shade, increasing reflectivity, i.e., raising the urban albedo, and converting to renewable from combustible energy sources).

While all of the strategies are not new, Kelbaugh brings the gift of expert storytelling, making the multiple and integrated benefits of the mitigation strategies real and meaningful to peoples’ everyday lives. This is not an easy task. Kelbaugh’s talent comes from 50+ years of designing and teaching about sustainable buildings and cities, including having taught the most popular large lecture course at the University of Michigan on the subject. His is the most compelling account of the what, why and how cities can play a key role in combatting the existential threat of climate change. It is a must read for anyone interested in the future resilience and well-being of our cities.

About the Author:
Harrison Fraker received his MFA in Architecture from Princeton and Cambridge Universities. His teaching, practice and research span 50+ years; first at Princeton (1968-84), then as chair and founding dean at University of Minnesota (1984 95), and finally as the 5th Dean of CED at UC Berkeley (1996-2019). He has received 10 major design awards, the 2014 The Topaz Medallion – the highest award for excellence in architectural education and his Oakland EcoBlock was chosen as a Top Ten Transformative Project by Scientific American 2018. His most recent book is “MINDING THE CITY, Field Notes on the Poetics of Sustainable Public Space”, ORO Editions (March 2021).