Monday, April 4, 2011

How to Design Human Centered Cities

I teach a design-thinking class at RIT and each quarter we use human-centered design principles to approach a different project. This quarter our project is focused on our city, Rochester, NY. Inspired by a design brief issued by Fabrica called "Looking Back, Designing, Forward," we are surveying the city's recent history and then engaging in what Roger Martin and Charles Sanders Pierce before him calls abductive reasoning. We are asking, “What might be?” The answer to this question will be on display at the 4th annual Imagine RIT festival in the lobby of Saunders College of Business. If you are in the area on May 7, come visit our  "Imagine Rochester 2020" exhibit and let us know what you think.

As a result of guiding my students through this project, I am thinking almost at every turn about urban design. When I was driving along Niagara Street in Buffalo a few weeks back, I was saddened that I couldn't see the Niagara River just a few meters away. What blocked my view was a wall of rusted out factories, one after the other. It was clear to me that whoever wrote the zoning for this piece of land had a technology-centered perspective and not a human-centered one. Those zoning decisions were now keeping me from seeing a beautiful river valley just a few feet to my right. If the infrastructure along the river-way had been designed with humans in mind, my view would have been very different. The emotions I would’ve experienced toward the city would have been joy and pride instead of sadness and alienation.

My students and I spent the first half of the quarter meeting with visionary systems-thinkers in the city of Rochester. We've met with farmers, educators, clean-fuel producers, green-jobs facilitators, and beyond. All of these people have a grand vision for the future of our city, and while they employ new technology to reach their goals, human interests are at the center of their thinking. Yet, when my students and I came back to the studio to synthesize the data we’d collected, tech-centered ideology showed its face. Students easily rattled off the technological innovations they had observed in the field.

For example, we started digging deeper into one student’s celebration of Rochester's technological exports. To bring into view a human-centered perspective, I asked, "What benefits do these exports provide the citizens of the city of Rochester?" The easy answer is that the exports bring more money into the city, but I wanted more, so I pushed them to dig deeper. The students quickly got to the heart of the issue, I think, when they articulated this series of claims: "Exporting brings global firms to Rochester." Good, good. "Global firms come to Rochester because they want to stay in New York State." Very good. "And if global firms are coming downtown, then more people are downtown and a demand for downtown revitalization is created." Bingo.

Downtown revitalization. We came to it ourselves. It's one thing to read about it in the paper, it's another to start at one seemingly isolated point, exports, and arrive at downtown revitalization. As you locals know, ever since the decline and eventual demolition of Midtown Plaza, America's first urban mall c. 1962, Rochester has been struggling with the question, "What will be our new identity, the new symbol for downtown?" As we ask these big questions, we need to think beyond technology and beyond economic development, lest we line the river with more factories. Don’t get me wrong, technology and economy are essential, but we need to always remember that they are a means to an end. The end is to encourage more people, especially young talent, to stay in Rochester. Certainly creating more jobs will do that, and certainly developing new technology can create more jobs. However, anyone who works in a university incubator knows about the struggles of turning new technology into new jobs. So we need to think about human-centered innovations too, by asking questions such as “How do we engage citizens of the city of Rochester on an emotional level? How do we create emotional ties to the city? How do we engage human concerns like justice, health, equality, and the arts, not just by way of not-for-profit programs, but in plans that integrate economic and technology development?”

These questions about human-centered innovations are difficult to form, and their benefits are more difficult to measure than those of technological and economic innovations. As author Hilary Austen points out, we tend to run like hell from difficult questions like these. But to change our current urban plight, we must face these difficult questions. If we’re not exploring questions such as “How do we create an emotionally engaging Rochester,”  then we won’t change our current state.


  1. Great post, Xanthe. I agree that we must, in our future, be human-centered and environment-centered in our thinking, especially in technological development.



  2. Just a shout out from someone who grew up in Rochester and now lives in Buffalo. Found your page while looking up other stuff.

    The reason Niagara Street was lined with factories is because the Erie Canal (and later the railroad) ran between Niagara Street and the Niagara River, as seen here:

    Factories needed access to the canal because, until the advent of railroads, there was no other practical way to get their goods to market. Consider this form of development the 19th century version of "...if global firms are coming downtown, then more people are downtown, and a demand for downtown revitalization is created."

    The Genesee River was treated no differently and today you treasure your old mill buildings along the former Platt Street bridge, even though they block the view of the Genesee from Lake Avenue and St. Paul.

    So why should we dispose of our old factories?


Comments are moderated on this blog and should appear within 24 hours of posting. Unless, of course, you've been naughty.