Those living in cities will notice urban design elements within their neighborhoods, ranging from building facades, laneways, street corners, pedestrian crossings, and green open spaces.
These individual elements blend and form an overview of what we call the urbanscape. The city’s spatial layout or appearance as our eyes perceive it. People then develop a mental image of the city based on what they see and subsequently devise a judgment about it (whether it is pleasing to be in the city or not).
The beautiful urban landscape of an Italian town is way more pleasing to the eye than an American city’s suburbs. Still, there’s more to urban design than mere aesthetics. The environment we live in shapes who we are, and urban design helps us influence that process in a way that benefits us.
But what is urban design, and why is it important in urban city planning?
What is urban design?
Urban design concerns the arrangement, appearance, and function of our suburbs, towns, and cities. It is both a process and an outcome of creating localities where people live, engage with each other, and engage with the physical place around them.
Urban design involves many disciplines, including planning, development, landscape architecture, engineering, economics, law, and finance.
To put it more simply: urban design is how we alter the physical form of a metropolitan area, intending to improve its physical and non-physical elements.
However, this isn’t entirely accurate.
Altering a city’s physical form might be the main subject in urban design, but it’s not the only thing. Designing an urbanscape is a complex matter that extends beyond material appearance. Like all forms of art, the art of urban design also affects items invisible to the eye and ungraspable by the hand.
For instance, when designing the physical form of a street, we have to consider many physical and non-physical factors, including:
- street network layout
- traffic volume and frequency
- surrounding land use (housing/commercial/natural reserve)
- local population demographics (age, gender, race, socioeconomic status)
- environmental implications (pollution, water catchment)
Changing the street’s appearance will affect all of these factors, so urban designers must consider them carefully. After all, an aesthetically pleasing road is useless if it cannot induce the desired traffic flow and support the neighborhood’s overall function. For example, in Helsinki, the lane width is narrower than in the US, intending to slow down traffic and reduce accidents.
If a high-end computer has a faulty operating system, would you use it?
Steve Jobs famously said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” — while he was likely discussing smartphones and laptops here, his words are just as valid for any design.
Imagine this quote applied on the scale of a city — that’s what urban design is.
It’s not merely what the city looks like and feels like. It’s how the city works and although it may seem like a daunting task, consider that urban designers don’t work alone. They have teams of researchers, engineers, architects, and urban planners working with them.
Is urban design the same as urban planning?
With the word ‘urban’ in both their names, ‘urban design’ and ‘urban planning’ are often confused. These two disciplines are close, and the similarities between them can overlap that it isn’t immediately clear which one’s which.
To explain with examples:
- Urban planning is more about policies, regulations, and strategies. Think social, cultural, environmental, and economic aspects translated into city master plans, development plans, and other policy documents.
- Urban design focuses more on form and functionality. Consider walkability, transit systems, architectural landscape, and other urban features translated into design guidelines, spatial layouts, and 3D models.
The scopes of urban planning and design overlap almost entirely, only each tackling the problem from different sides.
As stated by the Urban Design Group: Urban planning is “the design of towns and cities, streets, and spaces. It is the collaborative and multi-disciplinary process of shaping the physical setting for life — the art of making places. Urban planning involves the design of buildings, groups of buildings, spaces, and landscapes and establishing frameworks and procedures that will deliver successful development by different people over time.”
Because of this overlapping scope of work, many urban designers are often trained as urban planners or architects.
Who are Urban Designers?
Urban designers are often architects, city planners, sustainability experts, or landscape architects. Their expertise combines ideas from developers, architects, local communities, planners, transport planners, traffic engineers, environmentalists, landscape architects, and others to resolve problems and conflicts and create better urban environments.
Usually, this results in new cities being built or a new appreciation of existing urban areas in cities, towns, and villages. Urban designers are utilized by developers, local planning authorities, or community groups, including neighborhood planning groups or private enterprises that wish to build more sustainably.
Why is urban design important?
Humankind lives within the confines of space and is affected by it directly and indirectly. We don’t always realize this, but it always happens. Numerous pieces of research have found that urban design affects physical and mental health and well-being.
According to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, urban design affects you through these factors:
- green spaces and access to nature
- active space for exercise
- social places to encourage positive social interaction
- city safety
- transportation and transport connections
- economic stress and affordability in the city
- air pollution
- quality of life
Good or bad urban design can break people’s quality of life. Consider when you walk out of your house and into your neighborhood. Would you prefer green parks, lively pedestrian spaces, or noisy, congested traffic? It’s a concept we’re implementing with our new Earth Cities at 100TM.
We are designing cities from scratch, using cost-effective, proven technologies and urban planning to create truly sustainable cities.
Urban design and urban planning are making better sustainable cities
While we have found historical proof of planned and designed cities in ancient civilizations, modern urban design has only been around since the mid-20th century.
This makes it a relatively young discipline.
New urban design concepts and paradigms are being developed every day. The goal is to promote more sustainable, resilient, and humanistic urban development. Factors including walkability, inclusivity, efficient transit systems, environmental friendliness, and technology integration are getting more attention among urban designers.
Some people may be more pessimistic, but the future is bright. True, existing human cities are struggling with substantial challenges: a rapidly expanding population, mass urbanization, rising inequality, and climate change — but we do have the answers to make a better future.
Urban design holds tremendous potential to help us address these issues and ultimately create better cities and sustainable communities. Seen on a smaller scope and shorter timeframe, urban design makes better individuals. Viewed in a larger capacity and more extended timeframe, it makes a better world.
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