Making the choices in urban planning explicit is difficult. PhD student Egbert Stolk, Urbanism, tried it anyway and devised a conceptual model that combines the dynamic process of designing with that of the environment.

It would be nice if urban planning could be split up into identical building blocks that all obey the same physical laws. It would make design tasks clearer and design choices more defendable. But simply applying the laws of physics to the urban, is not easily done. PhD Egbert Stolk noted in his thesis "A complex cognitive approach to urban design." Cities are complex systems, used by people. And people can’t be reduced elementary particles "Reducing people’s design behavior to a purely instinctive, lawful act like that of animals - like a beaver building a dam - does not work either. Because of the scale and diversity of human design behavior is to large.  Furthermore, people let themselves be guided by visions of the future. Their 'mental time travel' add an extra, unforeseen aspect to design behavior.  

Therefore Stolk took a completely different approach and coupled complexity theory to knowledge from the cognitive sciences. The starting point: urban design is a collective cognitive activity. From here he built a theoretical framework for urban and developed two design instruments, which he submitted as part of his doctoral research together with some case studies.  In addition, he projected the developed theory on the urban design practice in the province of Noord-Holland among others. This yielded different conclusions. One is that urban design is found on various scales, and that the laws for one scale do not automatically apply to other scales. This is partly why planning is so difficult in urban design.  It is assumed to easily that the realization of a plan is simple to implement. Whilst the practice of urban design on can be very stubborn. Also, the complexity and unpredictability of the political context often delay plans and / or create a need to modify them.
Stolk finds that a lot of knowledge from other disciplines is useful for understanding the mechanisms in urban planning. "Too often we assume that the urban design processes are alike, whilst you can see that compared to other disciplines this is not so. We should make more and better use of this knowledge. Because with knowledge, you stand stronger as an urban designer.

Published: September 2015

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