Urban Design as a Career
What is urban design?
Urban design is the process of shaping the physical setting for life in cities, towns and villages. It is the art of making places. It involves the design of buildings, groups of buildings, spaces and landscapes, and establishing the processes that make successful development possible.
Why are so many places so badly designed?
Why are the places we are building so different from the places we like? So many new developments snuff out what makes a place special and give the impression of having been designed (if that is the word!) by someone with no sense of what makes a successful place.
Why is so much development so badly designed? The fact that 84 per cent of planning applications are drawn up by someone with no design training may have something to do with it.
But being trained in design does not necessarily mean that the person responsible for the development will designing something that might make a successful place. After all, they may not have seen that as their job. They may have been thinking only of limited and short-term aims: to build something that the developer can sell quickly; or to serve the building’s users, rather than making a more pleasant experience for people passing by.
The public interest is wider, and longer term. Urban design appeals to people who are interested in more than just the design of a single building or the interests of a single user. What gets urban designers out of bed in the morning is the challenge of creating a place that will be used and enjoyed by a wide range of different people for different purposes, not only now but in years to come.
A new profession
Urban design is one of the newest professions. The label ‘urban designer’ is little more than 25 years old. Much of what urban designers do – shaping the places where we live – was done by professionals of various kinds before then, but the job was seen from the perspective of particular professions. Architects and planners used to argue about the roles of their two professions.
Architects would accuse planners of interfering with aesthetic matters about which they were not qualified to judge. Planners would accuse architects of designing buildings solely as objects, with little attempt to take account of their context or of their likely impact on the surroundings. In 1978 some architects and planners called a truce. This professional sniping is pointless, they said. We have something in common: we are all in the business of making places. That should be the basis of our working together.
People with a mission
The Urban Design Group was formed, and soon architects, planners, landscape architects, engineers, public artists and a range of other professionals were declaring their commitment to urban design. Their mission was to change how the environment was shaped.
They argued that architects should be concerned with the place, not just with designing a building to satisfy the client’s demands alone. Planners should be concerned, not just with land use, but with the physical form of development. Landscape architecture should be involved in analysing and understanding sites at the start of the planning and design process, rather than being brought in at a late stage to disguise ugly buildings with some planting. Highway engineers should use their skills to make places that are pleasant to be in and to walk through, rather than focusing narrowly on keeping the traffic moving.
New projects, new skills
Twenty-five years later, urban design is a mainstream professional activity, which local and central government and local communities greatly value. But urban design has not turned into a new profession somewhere between architecture and planning. Urban design is more than that: it is a set of skills, a state of mind and a way of thinking.
Some urban designers have a background in planning, some in architecture or landscape architecture, some in geography, engineering or economics, and many in more than one field. Urban designers do not have a standard set of skills that, once learned, can be applied mechanically for the rest of their careers. The best urban design involves working in teams with groups of professionals with a wide range of complementary skills, and with non-professionals who have their own knowledge and expertise. Urban designers learn new skills and aptitudes with each project.
Why is urban design important?
Urban design is a key to making places that are successful both socially and economically, good to live in, and attractive to visit. Urban design is essential in creating community identity. It effective planning in the widest sense, and it can help to deliver better public services. It also helps to achieve value for money in new developments, and to make good use of scarce resources. Careful urban design may contribute to a reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour.
What do urban designers do?
- Developing ‘visions’ for places – using creativity and imagination to invent or re-invent the environments we live and work in.
- Designing built spaces – from whole towns and neighbourhoods to individual streets or squares.
Advising on the design of developments and regeneration projects.
- Researching and analysing places and people – understanding the physical, political, economic, spatial and psychological context of the places you work with and the people who use them.
- Influencing people by using your skills and knowledge to help others make better decisions and teach them how to make successful places.
- Developing guidance and policies relating to the built environment.
- Community consultation – helping the public to take part in planning and designing their neighbourhoods.
- Graphic representation – from sketching and technical drawing to using the latest technologies and packages in visualisation and computer aided design.
What is an urban designer?
A wide variety of people call themselves urban designers. In one sense anyone who is involved in making places is active in urban design: hence the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL) brings together many of the built environment professions. Even if you do a university course in ‘urban design’, exactly what you learn will depend on which university you choose, as on other courses. The various urban design courses have different emphases.
It is important to understand that urban design is not an accredited profession. There is no professional body that decides what should be on the curriculum of an urban design course, or what expertise and knowledge you need to be able to practise as an urban designer.
An urban designer needs a broad understanding of cities, towns and villages, and ways of making them work better. This involves understanding how the planning system operates, how developers make their sums add up, how to assess what makes a particular place special, how to make places easy to move around by foot and vehicle, how to bring life to places that have become run down, how to conserve historic buildings, how to make the most of the landscape, how to think about the future of small and large development sites, how to involve local people, how to make sure that projects actually happen, how to communicate effectively, how to negotiate, and how to write design policy and guidance.
That sounds like a lot of subjects! But they are all related, and each explains a bit more about how urban places work. The urban designer is not expected to be an expert on all of them, but it is essential to be able to see the whole picture.
More about what urban designers do
A list elsewhere on this website sets out tasks that are carried out by urban designers (whether or not they call themselves that). There is probably no single person who is fully competent in all of them. Think of the list as an exciting menu of possibilities.
The terminology of the items on the list may not mean much to you (like any specialisation urban design has its own specialist language, and the best urban designers take care not to use it to bamboozle people). But the list of things that urban designers do will give you an idea of the range of tasks. See www.udg.org.uk/urban_design_tasks
Some people engaged in urban design call themselves urban designers (although at a party they may have to explain what that means). Others may use another professional label, or they may prefer not to be labelled at all. Many urban designers are members of more than one professional institute, and they are happy not to fit into any professional pigeonhole. It is not necessary to be a member of a professional institute at all in order to practise as an urban designer (similarly architects and planners do not have to be members of their professional institutes).
Old professions like accountancy and the law may be relatively predictable. Urban design appeals to people who do not want a simple and predictable life, but who are fascinated by the complexity and endless variety of cities, towns and villages.
We are all urban designers now
The multi-professional nature of urban design is reflected in the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL). This brings together most of the built environment professional bodies and some associated organisations. They recognise that all their members are, to some extent at least, urban designers, as their work shapes the built environment. UDAL sees its role as being to encourage closer collaboration between professions in their working lives and between their professional institutes.
Designing for an unpredictable future
Towns and cities are constantly changing, and in ways that are unpredictable. How will we be living, working, shopping or enjoying ourselves in 10, 20 or 30 years time? We don’t know. That does not mean that we can not plan and design. What it does mean is that we need to plan and design flexible frameworks that can accommodate change.
In thinking about the future, we need to understand the past and the present. We need to know about the physical characteristics of the places we are planning, including their landscape, waterways and ecologies. We need to understand local economic and market conditions. And we need to know about the people who live there – how they live, how they work, how they move about the area and what they hope for the place’s future.
A nose for politics
Whose interests do urban designers serve? It’s a tricky question. Any urban development is likely to affect different people in different ways. The developer has certain interests; the people who will occupy the buildings have others; people who pass by the buildings and use adjoining spaces will have interests of their own. On top of that there is what is called ‘the public interest’, which is hard to define.
The public interest is not just of the people in the locality, but perhaps also of those in other parts of the world who may bear the consequences of our use of resources. And the public interest concerns not just people today and in the immediate future, but future generations that will face the consequences of our decisions. Reconciling these potentially conflicting interests will appeal to someone who likes a challenge. In a democracy that reconciliation happens through the political process, which is why many of the best urban designers have an acute political nose
Interested in becoming an urban designer?
The scope of the job
Urban design offers a great deal of variety. Throughout your career you can work around the world; for yourself and for others; and in the public sector (for a local authority, for example) and in the private sector (for a consultancy or a developer, for example). Day-to-day activities are very diverse, and there is huge scope to specialise and learn new skills.
A university undergraduate degree in any subject relating to the built environment or spatial design is a good start. You may then choose to take a postgraduate course in urban design or a related subject. These are offered by universities across the UK. Courses range from accessible certificate programmes to comprehensive masters degrees.
Best subjects to study
Architecture, town planning, landscape architecture, geography, engineering.
Number of years to qualify
Minimum three years undergraduate and one year postgraduate. Work experience is also highly recommended before or during postgraduate study. Maximum eight years.
Typical starting salary (London)
Typical salary after five years
35-45 hours per week
Proportion of time spent in office
How much time you spend in the office will depend on how you develop your role. On average you can expect to spend around 70 per cent of your week in the office and 30 per cent on site or with clients, for example.
Urban designers working for private sector consultancies may work on overseas projects. China is an expanding market, for example.
Opportunities for part-time work
There are many opportunities for working part-time and also for working freelance.
What motivates you?
The broad scope of urban design means that people from all backgrounds and with diverse interests will find urban design an engaging and satisfying career.
Urban designers tend to come to the profession because they:
- Find the complexity and variety of towns and cities exciting.
- Enjoy art and design.
- Are interested in the world we have built around us.
- Appreciate the difference between a good and a bad place and want to improve our environment.
- Understand the importance of using the world’s resources carefully and want to work towards a greener future.
- Are interested in the political processes through which decisions are made.
Why is this job for me?
- Your work is will leave a legacy for the future.
- You are a part of the process that shapes the world around us.
- It is a new and growing activity. Good urban designers are in great demand.
How can I find out more?
See the websites of the individual professional bodies to find out about those particular specialisms:
The ICE was founded in 1818 by a small group of idealistic young men. Now the number of members has grown, and the ICE represents nearly 80,000 members worldwide. www.ice.org.uk
The Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT) is a learned society concerned specifically with the planning, design, construction, maintenance and operation of land-based transport systems and infrastructure. www.iht.org.uk
The IHBC is the principal professional body for building conservation practitioners and historic environment specialists working in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, with connections to the Republic of Ireland. www.ihbc.org.uk
The Landscape Institute is an educational charity and chartered body responsible for protecting, conserving and enhancing the natural and built environment for the benefit of the public. www.landscapeinstitute.org
The Royal Institute of British Architects champions better buildings, communities and the environment through architecture and our members. www.architecture.com
The Royal Town Planning Institute is the UK's leading planning body for spatial, sustainable, integrative and inclusive planning. www.rtpi.org.uk
The Institute of Highway Engineers was founded in 1965 and celebrated "IHE at 40" in 2005. IHE is run by and for practical engineers and allied professionals who have ideas and commitment to sustainability and integrity. www.ihie.org.uk
The Urban Directory 2011/13
The Urban Design Directory provides a list of the main urban design courses in the UK as well as details of around 40 practices specialising in urban design (this section is also available online here).
To obtain a copy of the Directory (price £12.50 inc. postage & packing), please send a cheque payable to Urban DesignGroup to:
Urban DesignGroup, 70 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6EJ
For further information, please contact 020 7250 0892 or email@example.com.
Other urban design links
Knowledge sharing and networking for professionals & academics in urban development. www.rudi.net
Supporting local communities to help them deliver and shape places and spaces that meet their needs. www.designcouncil.org.uk/CABE
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has been recognized that the political, economic, and social division of Europe must be overcome. The Council for European Urbanism believes that cities and regions will play a special and integrating role in this process. Their renewal will influence the development of a diverse European Culture. www.ceunet.org
Architecture centres present a wide range of information about issues relating to urban design. Contact your local centre, if you have one:
Architecture Centre Network
London Open House
MADE (West Midlands)
The Architecture Centre, Kent
The Architecture Foundation
The Building Exploratory, Hackney
The Lighthouse, Glasgow
The RIBA Architecture Gallery, London
Urban Design Jobs
Upcoming UDG Events
Unless otherwise stated, all events are held in The Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6EJ at 6.30 pm.
Tickets can be purchased at the door from 6.00pm: £3.00 for UDG members and £7.00 non-members; £1.00 for UDG member students and £3.00 non-member students.