What is Urban Design?

Urban design 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 in cities, towns and villages; the art of making places; design in an urban context. Urban design involves the design of buildings, groups of buildings, spaces and landscapes, and the establishment of frameworks and processes that facilitate successful development.

Louise Thomas, co-editor of the URBAN DESIGN journal, describes its value to clients and stakeholders alike.

Urban design is concerned with a great variety of places: city centres, residential neighbourhoods, grassy fields on the edge of a village, down-at-heel industrial estates, or the areas around local bus or train stations. Urban design ranges from the setting of policies and processes to the design of buildings and spaces themselves. It should inspire, illustrate and define how a place could be improved, or remain unchanged, to bring benefits to investors, developers and wider society.

Who are Urban Designers?

Urban designers are typically architects, town planners or landscape architects. Their skill is to bring together the ideas of developers, local communities, other architects, planners, engineers, landscape architects and many more and to resolve problems and conflicts in order to create better places for all. Sometimes this will result in new places or rediscovered parts of existing towns and cities.

The range of urban design approaches compared to other disciplines and scale, inspired by Roger Evans' Shaping Towns presentation on scale and process (Bristol, 2012)

How big or small are urban design projects?

Urban design covers a range of activities from drawing up large masterplans to detailed designs for a local street. What they have in common is a concern for designing at the human scale, for ease of use, and for making attractive places that remain valuable over time. Like any well-designed object, a place must function well, be attractive, durable and cost effective. Adding this economic, social and environmental value to projects does not necessarily add to costs, but requires a broader view than many other professions adopt, and at an early stage in each project.

What kind of project can it help?

Urban design may be indicative or precise, strategic or detailed as reflected by its outputs in different ways:

  • Inspirational  Creating a ‘vision’ to show the economic, social and environmental benefits of investment at a strategic scale to a wide area and over a long period of time. This is usually conveyed through a vision statement, projecting forward 20-25 years’ time to explain the key future characteristics of an area and how people will use it. This statement can then be complemented by a development framework, outlining the main physical features that will fulfil the vision.
  • Fact-finding  Testing the feasibility and viability of development ideas in context, including for example transport and infrastructure capacity, development character and density, environmental issues (such as flooding), plus local community needs and values. Feasibility studies usually include options and a recommendation on the ‘best fit’ scenario.
  • Illustrative  Masterplans, artists’ impressions and photographs from other successful places capture the imagination and help bring to life how a development might look, highlighting some of its most important landmarks and spaces. Illustrative masterplans often show one way in which site-specific urban design guidelines or principles can be built.
  • Defining  Site-specific masterplans set out precise proposals for which planning consent is being sought. In these, by contrast to illustrative masterplans, the use, size, form and location of buildings, roads and open spaces are fixed. A local planning authority may prepare a site-specific development brief, which sets out all of the main characteristics required, but allows the developer to draw up a proposed scheme in response. Masterplans and design codes bring together plot-specific requirements for a site, which development will need to comply with in order to be approved.

At the strategic level, a local planning authority can also identify district-wide character and design policies, which set out a combination of broad-brush design ideas – relating to materials and roof styles for example – and specific requirements, such as minimum back-to back distances for residential developments.

Why engage an urban designer?

The urban designer assembles a comprehensive picture of an area’s context in order to learn from it and then 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 development investment on the surrounding area. Working collaboratively with other professionals (e.g. on transport, ecology, architecture, etc.), the views of stakeholders and the local community are used to identify the most important design issues to address, thus ensuring that potential future objections are addressed in the early stages of the development process, and that everyone feels that change will be beneficial.

Urban design has often been described as filling the gap between town planning and architecture; it uses the same language as development planning policy, yet brings the design inspiration that investors and stakeholders value. Unlike most architectural commissions however, urban design looks beyond the boundary of a site and does not necessarily design the final buildings, but it defines their main attributes, including their relationships and the spaces between them.

Urban design is most useful when it is used early in the conception of a development proposal – to generate a well-founded vision, use a common design language with the local authority, ensure that community voices are heard, and focus on details that will ultimately matter in the development’s success. Urban design brings together more than the developer’s immediate interests within the red line boundary required for planning applications, and by working collaboratively, the design teams can respond creatively, rather than defensively, to external challenges. Time spent on urban design in the early stages of the development process can save time and money later, and will achieve results that satisfy more stakeholders.

Good urban design has been found to add economic value by:

  • Producing high returns on investments (good rental returns and enhanced capital values)
  • Making new places more attractive than the local competition at little cost
  • Responding to occupier demand
  • Reducing management, maintenance, energy and security costs
  • Contributing to more contented and productive workforces
  • Supporting the ‘life-giving’ mixed-use elements in developments
  • Creating an urban regeneration and place-making market dividend
  • Differentiating places and raising their prestige
  • Opening up investment opportunities, raising confidence in development
  • Providing opportunities for wealth generation by inhabitants
  • Reducing the cost to the public purse of rectifying urban design mistakes.
    (Value of Urban Design, CABE and DTLR, 2002)

Urban design in local government

In a local planning authority context, an urban designer can work collaboratively across departments with in-house and external experts, looking critically at an area, and using analytical and professional skills to understand the constraints and needs, and to identify a site’s potential or capacity for change. By involving local stakeholders and community members through a programme of events to hear their ideas and concerns, subsequent recommendations will have been usefully informed by the public. Development requirements are set out in formal policy documents, and are designed to support development management and control at a later stage.

From identifying new site-specific policies for a Local Plan, to describing an area development framework, urban design can show in spatial terms what policy is seeking to achieve. Outline planning applications are usually accompanied by a masterplan and a design and access statement; and urban design invariably has a key part to play in finalising reserved matters, and how development and other investment will be delivered and managed.

So what is good urban design?

The 2013 Urban Design Compendium set out the key aspects of urban design as:

  • 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 neighbourhood, 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 utilise each site’s intrinsic resources – the climate, landform, landscape and ecology – to maximise 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.
    (Table 1.1)

And what is the alternative...?

Evidence has shown that poorly designed places can quickly become areas with alienated communities, few or spoiled natural resources, and with little welcome and coherence for those who use them. Furthermore these areas often decline economically with consequences that are felt beyond their boundaries.

Urban design awareness has increased amongst other professions and the general public as a result of witnessing the failure of many urban areas to respond to people’s needs. The lessons from how some of the most attractive and valuable urban places in the world work are still being learned today – these include Bath, Edinburgh, Paris, or Manhattan. Designing new developments within their wider contexts means that potential negative impacts can be mitigated, and the economic, social and environmental benefits more widely felt.

Time spent on urban design in the early stages of the development proces can save time and money later, and will achieve resutls that satisfy more stakeholders.

Some examplar projects


Wisbeach Garden Town by URBED
Chichester Southern Gateway Masterplan by David Lock Associates


London Borough of Tower Hamlets Tall Building Study by Urban Initiatives Studio
Opportunities analysis and concept design for Feltham by Wood
Endsleigh North Townscape Character Zones by Nicholson Pearson Associates


Oxford's Science Area and Keble Road Masterplan by Shepheard Espstein Hunter
Wokingham Town Centre mews street by IDP

Further reading: