What is Urban Design?

METROPOLIS PLANNING AND DESIGN  Cheshunt Lakeside, Broxbourne, Station Hub

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 – the art of making places. Urban design 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.

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

Urban design is about a great variety of places: whether town and city centres, residential neighbourhoods and suburbs, grassy fields on the edge of villages, down-at-heel industrial estates, or unloved and overlooked areas around train stations, rivers and canals. Urban design defines the nature of buildings and the spaces between them, and how the design itself should be worked out: design processes and outcomes. Urban design inspires, illustrates and defines how a place could be improved or protected 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 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. Sometimes this will result in new places being built or a new appreciation of existing urban areas in cities, towns and villages. Urban designers can be employed by developers, local planning authorities or community groups, including neighbourhood planning groups.

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 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. Like any well-designed object, a place must function well, be attractive, durable and cost-effective to build and maintain. Adding economic, social and environmental value considerations to projects does not necessarily add to costs, but requires a view of the ‘bigger picture’ than many other professions adopt and at an early stage in each project. This is what urban designer do.

What kind of project can it help?

Urban design is versatile and so urban designers can produce ideas and work that is indicative or specific, strategic or detailed, and this is reflected in the types of drawings, reports and ways of working commonly used:

  • Urban design is visionary  creating a ‘vision’ 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. This is usually conveyed through a vision statement, projecting forward 20-25 years’ time to explain the future characteristics of an area and how people will use it. This can then be complemented by a development framework, outlining the key physical features that will deliver the vision.
  • Urban design is fact-finding  urban designers gather data and evidence about places to identify future options, and test the feasibility and viability of change or development in context, for example transport and infrastructure capacity, development character and density, environmental capacity issues (such as flooding), plus local community needs and values. Feasibility studies usually include options and a recommendation on the ‘best fit’ scenario.
  • Urban design can be illustrative  using masterplans, artists’ impressions, photomontages, 3D models and photographs of other successful places, urban designers can bring to life how a development could look. This includes highlighting important local characteristics, landmarks and public spaces. Illustrative masterplans often show just one way in which design guidelines can be built out.
  • Urban design setting specifications  site-specific masterplans set out precise proposals for which planning consent is being sought, and the use, size, form and location of buildings, roads and open spaces, which are fixed. A local planning authority may prepare a site-specific development brief, which sets out the main characteristics required, and it allows developers to draw up a proposed scheme in response. Masterplans and design codes bring together plot-specific requirements for a site, which development proposals will need to comply with in order to be approved.

A local planning authority can also identify district-wide character 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?

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 (e.g. transport, ecology, architecture, etc.), the views of stakeholders and the local community are essential in identifying key design issues to address, ensuring that any potential future objections are addressed early in the development process, so that everyone feels that change will be beneficial.

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

Urban design is most useful when it is used early in the design of a development proposal or process of regeneration – to bring together a well-founded vision, to create a common set of principles with the local planning authority, to ensure that community views are well understood, and to focus on details that will ultimately matter in the development’s success. Urban designers look beyond a developer’s immediate interests within the red line boundary required in planning applications, and by working collaboratively in 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 (ie 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 dynamic 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

Within a local planning authority, an urban design officer can work collaboratively across departments with in-house and external experts. Looking critically at an area and using analytical and professional skills to understand its constraints and needs, urban designers 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 shaped 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 in the planning process.

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; urban design also has a key part to play in finalising reserved matters, and how development and other investment will be delivered and managed.

As the 2020 Planning White Paper Planning for the Future indicated, a reform of the English planning system could involve front-loading new Local Plans with many critical urban design policies and considerations – defining the nature and location of new buildings and spaces, or how existing places are to be regenerated. This change will place far greater emphasis on designing places strategically and specific sites too, and could use design codes to define what would be acceptable. Urban design skills and expertise will be central to all involved in this new vision for the planning system.

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)

With the Coronavirus, there have been huge impacts and changes on lifestyles worldwide, ways of working, access to local goods and services, short and long distance modes of transport, and, the use of outdoor public and private spaces - urban and natural. The principles of creating walkable, mixed use and sociable places, which have always underpinned urban design practice, have come to the fore as a simple but very effective way of making places to support all ages of people with their physical and mental health needs. Urban design is about making places for people to enjoy at every stage of their lives.

But what is the alternative...?

Evidence has shown that poorly designed places can quickly become areas with alienated communities, few or spoiled natural resources, and little sense of welcome and coherence for those who visit or use them. These areas often decline economically and with consequences that are felt far 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, and it is no coincidence that these are often the kind of places that we aspire to visit on holiday. Designing new developments to site well within their wider contexts means that negative impacts are mitigated, and economic, social and environmental benefits can be more widely felt.

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.

Some examplar projects


URBAN INITIATIVES STUDIO  A Framework for Woolwich Town
PLACE-MAKE  Houghton Regis Place Shaping Study
BDP  Basing View Place-making Vision


PRO VISION  Examining settlement extension opportunity in Caine, Wiltshire


TERENCE O'ROURKE  Exploration of social living spaces as part of a Garden Village masterplan


METROPOLIS PLANNING AND DESIGN  Cheshunt Lakeside, Design Code

Further reading: