Urban Design

1 Urban Design

Urban Design is a field that combines architecture, landscape design, and city planning. It is about creating and improving the spaces that we inhabit in cities. Urban Design is not just about aesthetics, it is a multidisciplinary process that involves planning, design, and management.

To better understand this field, it’s essential to define Urban Design and learn its importance. Understanding the significance of Urban Design can help us create cities that are more livable, sustainable, and visually appealing.


  1. Understand the importance and benefits of urban design
  2. Recognize that urban design is a collaborative process


Key Takeaway:

  • Urban Design is the art of designing cities and urban spaces in a way that harmoniously blends together the built and natural environments, while also considering the community’s needs.
  • The importance of Urban Design lies in its ability to positively impact the community’s health and wellbeing, encouraging community engagement, and creating prosperous and functional urban spaces.
  • Urban Design projects vary in scale, from small-scale interventions like public plazas to larger projects encompassing entire cities or neighborhoods, and can involve different stakeholders and scales of decision-making.
  • Human scale design is a key aspect of Urban Design, focusing on designing spaces that meet the needs of people, rather than vehicles or machines, and prioritizing equity and accessibility in urban spaces

What is Urban Design?

Definition of Urban Design

Urban design refers to the process of designing and shaping urban environments with a focus on establishing functional, sustainable, and visually appealing communities. The practice aims at improving the quality of life while enhancing human interactions and movement within cities. Urban designers work towards a cohesive and collaborative approach that encapsulates planning principles while taking into account social, cultural, economic and physical factors that shape a city’s environment.

Overall there is a strong emphasis on designing public spaces such as parks, streetscapes, plazas, public buildings among others with careful consideration of their impact on the surrounding cityscape. 


When considering the definition of urban design, it is important to understand that it encompasses various disciplines. Landscape architects are responsible for creating beautiful outdoor spaces while planners consider zoning regulations. Architects have a hand in building structures while civil engineers ensure designs conform to safety standards.

Elements of Urban Design

1. Streetscape: The term “streetscape” defines the visible and tangible components that together make up a street’s overall appearance. It includes a variety of architectural components that enhance a street’s usability and aesthetic appeal, such as street furniture, lighting, planting, pavement materials, and signage. A well-planned streetscape can produce an inviting and appealing atmosphere that motivates visitors to hang out on the sidewalk and interact with the neighborhood. A well-designed streetscape can increase a street’s utility in addition to its aesthetic appeal by including welcoming seats, sufficient lighting, understandable signs, and well-maintained infrastructure. 


2. Public Spaces: Public spaces are defined as places in urban settings where people can congregate and interact with one another. Parks, public plazas, squares, and other open spaces are included in these locations. In order to encourage social contact and community formation in metropolitan environments, well-designed public spaces are crucial. They give people from all cultures and backgrounds a place to meet, exchange stories, and develop a sense of community. By offering chances for leisure, relaxation, and appreciation of nature, public places can also encourage physical exercise, mental health, and general well-being. Public spaces can improve the social, economic, and environmental life of metropolitan communities when they are thoughtfully planned and efficiently administered. As a result, spending money on the development and upkeep of public areas is essential for creating thriving, healthy, and sustainable cities.


3. Building Design: Building design includes both the architecture and design of specific buildings found in urban settings. It is an essential component of urban design that has a big impact on the general feel and standard of a street or neighborhood. In addition to improving the aesthetic appeal of its surroundings, a well-designed building can also improve the built environment’s use and sustainability. An array of elements, such as the site context, building orientation, energy efficiency, and accessibility, are taken into account in effective building design. Buildings with sustainable design elements like green roofs, passive solar heating, and rainwater harvesting systems are some examples of well-designed structures. They might also have creative and appealing design aspects that accentuate the personality and uniqueness of their surroundings, such as spectacular facades, vivid colors, and unusual shapes. In the end, spending money on high-quality building design can significantly improve the livability and vibrancy of metropolitan areas, assisting in the development of prosperous and sustainable communities.


4. Accessibility: Accessibility describes how easily and conveniently people can travel around a city. This includes a variety of components that promote mobility in metropolitan settings, including sidewalks, bike lanes, and other infrastructure. The functionality and livability of cities are directly impacted by accessibility, making it a crucial element of urban design. Cities that place a high priority on accessibility are more likely to attract both residents and tourists. Because accessible transportation options can help reduce dependency on vehicles and encourage active and healthy lifestyles, they are also more likely to be sustainable and egalitarian. One strategy to increase accessibility in cities is to invest in public transportation, increase the number of bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, and enhance the quality and security of sidewalks and other infrastructure. Cities can build more vibrant, interconnected communities that benefit all citizens by giving accessibility a higher priority in urban planning.


5. Sustainability: Urban design must include sustainability, which refers to a city’s ability to accommodate its citizens’ requirements without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to do the same. Planning and building cities sustainably means taking into account their social, economic, and environmental impacts. This includes a variety of components like the use of green spaces, renewable energy sources, and energy-efficient structures. To build habitable, resilient communities that can adjust to changing conditions and lessen the effects of climate change, sustainable urban design is crucial. By giving priority to the needs of vulnerable groups and minimizing environmental and social inequities, it also encourages the development of more equitable and inclusive communities. In order to achieve sustainability in urban design, a comprehensive strategy that takes into account everything from waste management to building design and energy use is necessary. Cities can build more resilient, just, and prosperous communities that are beneficial to all citizens by putting sustainability first in urban planning.


6. Density: Density is an essential consideration in urban design, as it refers to the number of people living in a specific area. Greater access to facilities like stores, public transit, and community services, as well as more effective resource usage, are just a few advantages of higher density. However, it can also result in issues like backed-up traffic, crowded living spaces, and reduced privacy. To develop livable, sustainable, and fair communities, urban planners must carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of density. Urban designers may maximize the positive effects of density while minimizing its negative effects by supporting mixed-use development and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. Incorporating green spaces and public gathering places can also serve to lessen the drawbacks of high-density living by fostering chances for recreation and social contact. Designing for density ultimately necessitates a comprehensive strategy that promotes livability and sustainability for all people while taking into account the particular demands and preferences of various communities.


7. Identity: In urban design, creating a sense of identity is crucial to the success of a city or neighborhood. Identity refers to the unique character and personality of a place that sets it apart from others. A strong and distinctive identity can make a city more attractive and memorable, helping to draw visitors and investment, and foster community pride. Identity can be created through various means, including architecture, public art, and historical preservation. The use of local materials, traditional building styles, and indigenous plants can also contribute to a place’s identity. Urban designers can work to reinforce and enhance a place’s identity by celebrating its cultural heritage, supporting local businesses and events, and creating memorable public spaces. By creating a strong sense of identity, urban designers can foster a sense of community and pride, and create a lasting legacy that future generations can enjoy.


Image: Destination Crenshaw, in response to an extension of the LA Metro Rail into the heart of Black LA, the park is a reparative development project and will be the largest Black public art project in the U.S. 

Source: Urban Design Lab

Importance of Urban Design

Urban design is of immense importance in creating sustainable, livable and safe cities. The discipline addresses the challenges that arise from urbanization, population growth and environmental concerns by focusing on the spatial arrangement of built environments. By enhancing the quality of life, promoting equity and fostering economic prosperity, urban design brings about positive changes to society.

With designing experience and innovative approaches, urban designers help create spaces that are functional, aesthetic and meaningful. Urban designers collaborate with planners, architects, builders and lawmakers to ensure successful implementation of projects that enhance communities’ living quality. They play a critical role in planning public spaces such as parks, plazas and streetscapes.


Urban design covers a broad spectrum of scale – from developing comprehensive strategies for entire neighborhoods or districts to redesigning site-specific buildings or open locations within a city. Success also comes from human-scale designs that foster inclusionary arrangements such as comfortable walkways or pedestrian zones.


Benefits of Urban Design

Urban design can bring about numerous advantages to a community’s development and growth. It has the power to redefine spatial structures, enhance community engagement, and enrich human experiences.

  • Improved Quality of Life: By creating well-connected, walkable neighborhoods with ample green space and improved public transit systems, urban design enhances overall quality of life.
  • Boost in Economical Growth: Urban design projects can create job opportunities and stimulate economic activity for cities and regions.
  • Sustainability: With a focus on energy-efficient buildings and sustainable materials, urban design encourages environmentally-conscious practices that benefit both the local and global environment.
  • Social Cohesion: Encouraging social interactions within cities by designing safe public spaces that encourage integration for all ages, backgrounds/cultures, genders/sexual orientations etc.

How big or small are urban design projects?

Scope of Urban Design Projects

Urban design projects encompass a wide range of aspects related to the built environment. The scope of urban design projects includes planning, designing and enhancing public and private spaces with a focus on improving their functionality, sustainability, and aesthetics. Urban design projects aim to create livable spaces that integrate well with the surrounding communities and meet the needs of diverse groups of people.

Urban design projects can vary in scale from small-scale interventions such as installing street furniture to large-scale developments such as revitalizing entire regions. The scope of urban design projects also extends beyond physical designs to include social, economic and environmental considerations. An effective urban design project should consider all these facets while keeping in mind both current and future inhabitants’ needs.


Image: Exercise equipment in a park as an example of small scale design.


Image: Atlanta BeltLine as an example of large scale design

Urban designers assess current urban spaces to identify issues before crafting solutions that address relevant challenges under the umbrella of an existing framework or introduce new ideas. Their expertise ensures outcomes that benefit the environment, public health, social engagement, safety along with beautification among other factors.


Human Scale Design

Designing urban spaces with a focus on the human scale is an essential element of urban design. Human scale design takes into account the diverse needs and preferences of people that interact with built environments. This approach emphasizes designing places that are accessible, walkable, and cyclist-friendly, supporting local economies by encouraging pedestrian activity.


Human-scale designs aim to foster social interaction and create positive experiences for every person utilizing public spaces. It involves designing streetscaping, landscape architecture, and other elements to ensure that the objects that we interact with every day are of a size and shape that is reasonable for an average person to use. For example, that’s why our stairs have a 7 inch rise and an 11 inch run, for example, and why our doorways are 80 inches. (Of course, the fact that building for the “average” person does not guarantee universal “accessibility” is an important, but separate, issue). But this doesn’t cover all of the ways people interact with a city. Often, we use the term “human scale” to distinguish between those accessing the city on foot and those viewing it through a car window. 

More than anything else, deploying modern arrangements demands familiarity with different scales involved within urban planning allowing designers to successfully personalize attributes that incorporate a functional living environment suitable for all people. Such optimized placemaking helps create strong relationships amongst communities since it provides various sensitivities geared towards inclusivity among city dwellers.



Urban Design is Not Done in Silos


Collaborative Design Process

Collaborative design process is an essential component of urban design, where multiple stakeholders participate in the process to achieve a common goal. The approach involves active engagement and exchange of ideas among various professionals, including architects, planners, landscape architects, urban designers, policy makers and the community. The collaborative design process ensures that all stakeholders have a say in shaping the built environment and results in higher quality solutions that reflect the local context.

Integral to the collaborative design process is effective communication among stakeholders at every stage of the project development. This interaction helps to identify and resolve key issues related to site selection, programming, feasibility analysis, design development and implementation. Furthermore, by involving local residents in decision-making processes provides unique insights about their needs and priorities.

[We’ll talk more about collaborative process in the Participatory Planning Module]

If you are interested in the Collaborative Design Process within architecture, check out this virtual lecture by Janice Parker, award-winning landscape architect.  

Urban Design Commission/Advisory Board/Panel

An urban design commission (sometimes called Design Advisory Board or Design Review Panel) is a group of people who are appointed by the city government to advise on the design of new buildings and public spaces. They typically have a background in architecture, urban planning, or landscape architecture. The commission’s role is to ensure that new development is compatible with the city’s overall vision for its future, and that it meets the needs of the community.

Urban design commissions play an important role in shaping the future of our cities. They part of the process can raise development standards, encourage design excellence, and improve project quality. These benefits make the process beneficial to both the developer and the public.

Here are some examples of the work that urban design commissions do:

  • They may review plans and approve plans for a new building and make recommendations on the design, such as the materials that should be used, the height of the building, and the amount of green space that should be included.
  • They may also review plans and approve plans for a new public space, such as a park or plaza, and make recommendations on the design, such as the layout of the space, the types of amenities that should be included, and the materials that should be used.
  • They may also provide feedback on the design of existing buildings and public spaces, and make recommendations on how to improve them.
  • Make recommendations to the city government on matters related to urban design
  • They may also educate the public about urban design and the importance of good design in our cities.



What is Good Urban Design?

  • Places for People  For places to be well-used and well-loved, they must be safe, comfortable, varied and attractive. They also need to be distinctive, and offer variety, choice and fun. Vibrant places offer opportunities for meeting people, playing in the street and watching the world go by.
  • Enrich the Existing  New development should enrich the qualities of existing urban places. This means encouraging a distinctive response that arises from and complements its setting. This applies at every scale – the region, the city, the town, the neighborhood, and the street.
  • Make Connections  Places need to be easy to get to and be integrated physically and visually with their surroundings. This requires attention to how to get around by foot, bicycle, public transport and the car – and in that order.
  • Work with the Landscape  Places that strike a balance between the natural and man-made environment and utilize each site’s intrinsic resources – the climate, landform, landscape and ecology – to maximize energy conservation and amenity.
  • Mix Uses and Forms  Stimulating, enjoyable and convenient places meet a variety of demands from the widest possible range of users, amenities and social groups. They also weave together different building forms, uses, tenures and densities.
  • Manage the Investment  For projects to be developable and well cared for they must be economically viable, well managed and maintained. This means understanding the market considerations of developers, ensuring long term commitment from the community and the local authority, defining appropriate delivery mechanisms and seeing this as part of the design process.
  • Design for Change  New development needs to be flexible enough to respond to future changes in use, lifestyle and demography. This means designing for energy and resource efficiency; creating flexibility in the use of property, public spaces and the service infrastructure and introducing new approaches to transportation, traffic management and parking.

Five Facts About Introduction to Urban Design:

  • ✅ Urban design is the design of towns and cities, streets and spaces, and involves shaping the physical setting for life.
  • ✅ Urban designers are typically architects, town planners or landscape architects, and bring together ideas from developers, local communities, and many other professionals to create better places for everyone. 
  • ✅ Urban design projects can range in size from drawing up masterplans and design guidance for large areas to working up detailed designs for a local street or public space.
  • ✅ Urban design is versatile and can produce ideas and work that is indicative or specific, strategic or detailed, using different approaches and methods. 
  • ✅ Urban design can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of urban residents.

FAQs about Introduction To Urban Design

What is urban design?

Urban design is the collaborative and multi-disciplinary process of shaping the physical setting for life – the art of making places. It involves the design of buildings, groups of buildings, public spaces, and landscapes, and establishing frameworks and procedures that will deliver successful development by different people over time.

Who are urban designers?

Urban designers are typically architects, town planners, or landscape architects. They bring together ideas from developers, local communities, architects, planners, traffic engineers, landscape architects, transport planners, and many others, to resolve problems and conflicts in order to create better places for everyone.

How big or small are urban design projects?

Urban design can help in drawing up masterplans and design guidance for large areas, through to working up detailed designs for a local street or public space. It is about designing for people at the human scale, to make life better, and to make more attractive places that will remain valuable over time.

What kind of projects can urban design help?

Urban design is versatile and can produce ideas and work that is indicative or specific, strategic or detailed. This includes visionary masterplans to show the economic, social, and environmental benefits of investment or changes at a strategic scale over a wide area and over a long period of time, fact-finding studies to gather data and evidence, illustrative masterplans to bring to life how a development could look, and site-specific masterplans which set out precise proposals for which planning consent is being sought.

Why engage an urban designer?

Urban designers assemble a comprehensive picture of an area today in order to learn from it, and put forward proposals that demonstrate how potential constraints and opportunities have been responded to. This process helps to convey the benefits and other ripple-out effects of future change on the surrounding area to other parties. Working collaboratively with developers, other professionals, stakeholders, and the local community ensures that any potential future objections are addressed early in the development process, so that everyone feels that change will be beneficial.

How does urban design add value?

Urban design inspires, illustrates, and defines how a place could be improved or protected to bring benefits to investors, developers, and wider society. Adding economic, social, and environmental value considerations to projects at an early stage does not necessarily add to costs, but requires a view of the ‘bigger picture’ than many other professions adopt. Urban designers bring this perspective and ability to balance a range of competing challenges to help create successful developments.

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