For a while now I’ve had an issue with both the term and the definition of ‘urban design’.  What exactly is it?  Compare it to architecture or planning, which are professions that are easy to define and identify, even to a child’s mind.  At its most simple level, architects design buildings, while planners design cities.  We understand those roles because they have boundaries and actions that give them a clear identity.  But not so for urban design.  

We can all identify a well-designed space when we see it, but what part of this is due to good contemporary design?  Did it come about due to robust planning policies that encouraged a vibrant mix of uses?  Was it due to the active participation of community groups?  For most projects, it is probably of all the above… and then some more.  What we understand to be urban design involves a broad spectrum of disciplines, such as landscape architects, planners, architects, engineers, etc.  In addition, there is the involvement of the public, government agencies, and developers.  It’s clearly a ‘team effort’ to produce good urban design interventions. 

There is a misnomer that urban design is limited to city environments or suburban schemes.  However, the principles of urban design can and do operate in rural or natural settings.   As we strive for sustainable cities and look at issues such as green space preservation, food production, flood mitigation, it is obvious that there is no urban exclusivity or defined boundary in the process of urban design. Everything is connected. 

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The High Line, New York (Source:thehighline.org). One of the most celebrated examples of good urban design.
 
 
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Usk Reservoir Trail, UK (Source: breconbeacons.org). Despite its rural setting, this project demonstrates the principles of urban design, including access, circulation, local identity, mixed uses, tourism, habitat protection, flood mitigation, etc.
 
In addition to the vaguely incorrect description of urban design, there is also a touch of elitism or exclusiveness to this process.  For example, do traffic or utility engineers practice urban design?  Many would say no, arguing that they rarely look at the bigger picture of people, communities, or ground water infiltration, even in the face of planning guidance or regulations.  But why shouldn’t they be held to the higher standards of urban design?  This is partly because existing descriptions of urban design are not inclusive enough to encompass all built environment professions.  Definitions are often focused on building placement or arrangement and is seen by some as being only the preserve of visionary architects and master planners.
 
So how would we re-label and re-quantify ‘urban design’ in a manner that gives us a better understanding of what it is we do, not to mention to others who are unfamiliar with our profession?  There are a variety of insightful descriptions floating about, however, we need to reach a definition that caters to as many project types, scales and settings as possible.  A universal definition that applies to all disciplines of the built environment.  The term ‘public realm design’ has always provided a clearer direction.  Taking this term, I propose the following interpretation: ‘The design and management of publicly accessible areas, with the aim of creating connected, attractive, sustainable spaces, offering a variety of functional uses.’  

Exactly what is meant by these four key terms is explained as follows.  These terms should apply to any project, by any discipline, at any scale or setting:

  • Connectivity: Designs should offer a clear hierarchy of routes and permeability with active travel being the focus of any scheme. In order of priority, pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and vehicle access need to be catered for.  The relationships between buildings, spaces and nature need to be considered.  Connectivity may also include  digital coverage, which improves access to services and information. 
  • Attractiveness: Both the destination and the journey should attract people, inviting them to participate and engage with the site and each other.  Aspects of design that support this include comfort, safety, aesthetics, and discovery. Local identity, heritage, and values also contribute to placemaking.
  • Sustainability: This includes habitat protection, resource stewardship, energy efficiency and climatic responsive designs.  Economically speaking, projects should be considered in terms of viability and equitability.  Where ever possible project should be viewed as long-term investments, attract funding opportunities and provide a return to local communities.  Socially, designs should improve the quality of life for all individuals and groups, regardless of age, ability, ethnic background, as well as social or class status. Where possible, it should offer opportunities for partnerships, participation, and empowerment.
  • Functionality: The aggregate of varying uses, experiences, ownerships and stakeholders. Designs should offer a layering of integrated activities and programs, be adaptive in use and resilient to future changes. 

There is nothing new in what is being presented in these descriptions.  The theories and practices have been in circulation for many years, all of which are used regularly by professionals and academics worldwide.  However, urban design should not be restricted to any one type of gentrification project, road improvement scheme, park design, forest trail, stormwater drainage scheme, or housing estate.  It demands that all designers within the built environment operate in a broader manner and take into account holistic design principles.  David Adams and Steve Tiesdell sum this up in their book ‘Shaping Places’, where they state that there is a responsibility for urban designers to persuade and educate other disciplines of the impacts that individual decisions have on urban quality.  

If taken up by the industry, a uniform terminology such as I propose would apply equally to designers, engineers, policy makers, developers, and municipalities to give a clearer idea of what we are all trying to achieve.  As development continues at ever increasing rates and densities, it’s time that we break down professional boundaries that prevent us from creating and managing the most successful places possible.