what is urban design?

Urban design, the design of cities – what is it? Who does it? Does it require professional planners and architects? Or can everyday people who live and breathe in their space change the configuration of their own community? Does beautiful street art qualify as urban design? What about innovative grassroots bike lane striping and public square making a la Build a Better Block?


  • space making, place making, setting the stage for community life
  • giving meaning to places, whether it be historic, cultural, or aesthetic

According to Eugenie L. Birch in her preface to an excerpt of a passage called “How to Make a Town” in Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Duany et al., urban design is about “giving meaning to places, whether it be historical, or aesthetic.”

  • concerns buildings, groups of buildings, spaces, landscapes, corridors
  • builds connections between people and places, people and nature, people and other people
  • represents collaboration between community, planners, architects, landscape designers, engineers, politicians

It’s important to understand the topography and geographical features of your city as well as the nature of the institutions that anchor it. Cities are centered around what’s most important, whether it’s

  • a public space, marketplace, or intersections where two major roads meet, like Philadelphia
  • a river or other body of water used for trade hubs, like the James River in Richmond, Virginia or the Hudson and East Rivers encapsulating Manhattan
  • a church, as in Barcelona
  • a state house or governing seat, like in Paris, whose Baroque plan represents a physical manifestation of the centrality of the king
  • an educational institution, as in Williamsburg, Virginia, which is anchored by The College of William and Mary on one side and the state house on the other
  • a park space or open area, like London’s Bloomsbury Square, the first shared residential green space

Transect sketch

A rough sketch showing the measurements of houses and rights of way in plan from a residential transect we studied in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A quick diagram showing the gradation of private to public space in the urban realm.

A quick diagram showing the gradation of private to public space in the urban realm.


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