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What is Urban Design?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 17, 2024
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Urban design refers to how public space is created and used in cities and towns. Urban designers work to create the best way of using city space for the usability and enjoyment of all residents. They plan designs for residential, business, industrial and recreation areas with present public needs as well as projected growth in mind. Urban design can make a big difference in how people use public space.

A public park, for example, is often included in urban design because it adds natural green space to an otherwise concrete, metal and glass array of buildings. Yet the amenities parks offer vary widely. While most public parks have playgrounds for children and room for field sports activities, some may include a skateboard area to provide youth with a place for skateboarding activity. Other parks may feature a pond with a circular path around it to provide walking or running space for a wide range of people. There are many ways to offer the public the use of park space and good urban design considers the needs and desires of the community.

For instance, if the space allows, an urban designer may include a dog park so that city dog owners have an area in which to exercise their dogs. In larger parks, an outdoor stage or band shell may be a part of the urban design to allow space for outdoor community concerts and plays. Urban design is not the same as urban planning. Urban planners decide where industrial, recreational and residential zones will be located, while urban designers take each zone and plan its design.

An important consideration in urban design is incorporating historic landmarks or buildings into modern structures. Informational plaques may be added to landscaped areas outside buildings in areas once noted as an important historical place. Modern buildings must blend well with the older ones to give the city a cohesive look, but the needs of all residents including children, the elderly and disabled persons must be taken into consideration. Everyone’s safety and ease of movement through the city’s amenities needs to be the focus when urban space is designed.

Urban designers must be creative when designing city space to serve multiple purposes. For instance, apartments located over business space are popular in city areas as more people get accommodation on the same amount of land. After the urban design planning is completed, architects plan individual buildings and engineers construct them.

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Discussion Comments
By chivebasil — On Jan 15, 2012

I think one of the more interesting new ideas in urban design is one that has been proposed for Detroit and other post industrial cities that have lost lots of their population. The idea basically amounts to shrinking the city. Large areas of derelict properties would be torn down and their land returned to green space or other areas for community use.

I live in St. Louis which also has lots and lots of abandoned properties and the idea makes a lot of sense. Most of these are eye sores and represent a drain on the cities resources. They must be inspected, they catch fire, they house criminal activity and they occupy land that could be used for better purposes. Instead of holding our breath and hoping the 400,000 people will suddenly decide to move back to St. Louis, why not just tear down these old buildings and accept that we have shrunk?

By bagley79 — On Jan 15, 2012

I live in the middle of a big city, but when I go to the newly renovated park near my house, you would never know it.

This is a quiet oasis in the middle of an otherwise bustling city. I think one of the biggest attractions is the huge dog park.

It seems like this park is busy just about any time of the day. For city owners who want to make sure their dog gets some exercise and socialization, this is the perfect place.

It also gets people out of the house and an opportunity to meet some new people that you would otherwise never get to know.

I know that many urban design firms include plans for a dog park when they are working on new designs. This is something that has a wide appeal for many people.

Walkways that circle around a pond is also another feature that is included in many urban designs. These are features that draw many people to use a setting like this.

By sunshined — On Jan 14, 2012

I think urban landscape design is a great idea, but there are many small towns who simply can't afford a major undertaking like this.

My hometown is very small and has a very limited budget. Hiring an urban designer is something that has never even been considered.

We have one small city park that was pretty run down from years of neglect. Many residents got together and decided it was time to spruce up the park.

They organized some fund raisers and recruited other town members to help. With everyone working together they were able to make some significant changes to our small park.

This included the addition of fresh plants and flowers, attractive seating and some new playground equipment for the kids.

Now that it has been updated, you see many more kids and families using this space. Even though it would have been nice to hire an urban designer, we worked together and accomplished this on our own.

By honeybees — On Jan 14, 2012

I live in a very fast growing town that understands the need for modern urban design. Right now they are in the middle of a big project that will be an all-inclusive community for its residents.

This town has always had innovative ideas to encourage community spirit. One of the bigger city parks has a band shell where they have concerts on a regular basis.

During the month of July they have what is called 'Jazz in July'. Each week a different jazz group performs a concert, free of charge to the public.

Many people look forward to these concerts. You will see families with their lawn chairs, blankets, drinks and snacks. This is a great experience for the whole family, and a nice way to spend a summer evening.

By John57 — On Jan 13, 2012

@lighthOse33 - One thing that might be beneficial for you is being able to do an internship with a company that does urban design.

Not only could this help you get your foot in the door, but it would give you the opportunity to see how well you like the work. The experience would also look great on your resume as you pursued this particular career.

There seems to be more of a demand for these jobs than ever before. Many cities and towns want to have appealing designs to attract newcomers and also keep the young people from moving to other areas.

If a town's design can stay modern and up-to-date, they have a much better chance of attracting residents.

By lighth0se33 — On Jan 13, 2012

Does anyone know how hard or easy it is to find an urban design job? I will be starting college this year, and I know that I want to study some aspect of design. I want to be sure that my chances of finding employment after graduation are good, though.

I'm sure that I would either have to travel or move to a new location to do some urban design. I live near a town that has had the same design for decades, and they are too poor to change anything anytime soon.

It would be very exciting to have the power to determine the layout of a whole town. I would be thrilled to see my designs come to life in a major way. If there is any sort of demand for urban designers in the nation today, I would love to make this my career.

By cloudel — On Jan 12, 2012

I think it is wonderful when urban designers take the culture of the town into account. I live in a town that is brimming with artists, and the designer included plans for studios on top of businesses on the square.

Many artists now have studios and galleries on top of popular restaurants and bars, so they receive a lot of visitors when they open their doors to the public. Most of them have showcases right in their studios, rather than paying to use a fancy gallery, and they sell just as much art this way.

The urban designer was smart to do this. If he hadn't, then the artists most likely would have moved to the outskirts of town and taken the revenue with them.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 11, 2012

@Perdido – I'm with you on that! My sister-in-law lives in a city, and she has two small children who use the park regularly. Otherwise, they bounce around in the house so much that they tear everything up!

The urban designer who laid out the plan for her city was wise to include several apartments downtown above businesses. My sister-in-law lives in one of these apartments, and though it is small, it is just the right size for her and her two children.

Also, she can walk to work. Her place of business is two doors down, on the same side of the street as her apartment. Thanks to the urban designer, she doesn't even need a car!

By Perdido — On Jan 11, 2012

I admire urban designers' ability to think of the big picture. I am a graphic designer, but I can only think on a small scale, doing one project at a time. I can't imagine being responsible for the layout of an entire city!

One thing that I think I would do if I had to plan a town is include as much greenery as possible. Trees and plants make the air cleaner and more oxygenated, and they help combat the effects of pollution.

Also, a fenced-in field of greenery gives kids a chance to work off their excess energy. City children are often cooped up in an apartment and drive their parents nuts. A wide open space to run around in is just what they need.

By anon68953 — On Mar 05, 2010

how does a public relations officer work in the urban area?

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