Urban Design as a Career

Why urban design?

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.

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.

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 is effective planning in the widest sense, can help to deliver better public services, achieve value for money in new developments, and to make good use of scarce resources.

But why are the places we are building so often different from the places we like? Being trained in design does not necessarily mean that the person responsible for the development will design something that might make a successful place. After all, that may not be their brief or concern. They may primarily focused on limited and short-term aims: to build something that the developer can sell quickly; or to merely serve the building’s users.

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, who are fascinated by the complexity and endless variety of cities, towns and villages. 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.

Read more on the value of urban design to clients and stakeholders

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.

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.

All these areas of knowldge are related, and each explains a bit more about how urban places work. The urban designer is not expected to be an expert in all of them, but it is essential to be able to see the whole picture.

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)

It is important to understand that at this time urban design is not an accredited profession. There is no professional body that decides what expertise and knowledge you need to be able to practise as an urban designer, or what should be on the curriculum of an urban design course.

Even if you do a university course in ‘urban design’, exactly what you learn will depend on which university you choose, and the particualr emphasis of the course.

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 for that future; 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.

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.

Interested in becoming an urban designer?

Urban design offers a great deal of variety. Day-to-day activities can be very diverse, and there is huge scope to specialise and learn new skills. 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.

Qualifications required

A university undergraduate degree in any subject relating to the built environment or spatial design is a good start. The best subjects to study are architecture, town planning, landscape architecture, geography, engineering. 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.

To qualify will require a minimum three years undergraduate and one year postgraduate. Work experience is also highly recommended before or during postgraduate study. Maximum eight years.

How can I find out more?

The Urban Design Directory provides a list of the main urban design courses in the UK as well as details of over 100 practices specialising in urban design.

Professional bodies

Institution of Civil Engineers
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. 

Institution of Highways and Transportation
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. 

Institute of Historic Building Conservation
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. 

Landscape Institute
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. 

Royal Institute of British Architects
The Royal Institute of British Architects champions better buildings, communities and the environment through architecture and our members. 

Royal Town Planning Institute
The Royal Town Planning Institute is the UK's leading planning body for spatial, sustainable, integrative and inclusive planning. 

Institute of Highway Engineers
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.

Other useful links

Resource for Urban Design Information (RUDI)
Knowledge sharing and networking for professionals & academics in urban development. 

CABE at the Design Council
Supporting local communities to help them deliver and shape places and spaces that meet their needs. 

Council for European Urbanism

London Open House

The Architecture Foundation