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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.
Why are so many places so badly designed?
Why are the places we are building so different from the places we like? So many new developments snuff out what makes a place special and give the impression of having been designed (if that is the word!) by someone with no sense of what makes a successful place. Why is so much development so badly designed? The fact that 84 per cent of planning applications are drawn up by someone with no design training may have something to do with it. But being trained in design does not necessarily mean that the person responsible for the development will designing something that might make a successful place. After all, they may not have seen that as their job. They may have been thinking only of limited and short-term aims: to build something that the developer can sell quickly; or to serve the building’s users, rather than making a more pleasant experience for people passing by. 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. 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.
A new profession
Urban design is one of the newest professions. The label ‘urban designer’ is little more than 25 years old. Much of what urban designers do – shaping the places where we live – was done by professionals of various kinds before then, but the job was seen from the perspective of particular professions. Architects and planners used to argue about the roles of their two professions. Architects would accuse planners of interfering with aesthetic matters about which they were not qualified to judge. Planners would accuse architects of designing buildings solely as objects, with little attempt to take account of their context or of their likely impact on the surroundings. In 1978 some architects and planners called a truce. This professional sniping is pointless, they said. We have something in common: we are all in the business of making places. That should be the basis of our working together.
People with a mission
Urban design is more than that: it is a set of skills. some in architecture or landscape architecture. a state of mind and a way of thinking. 2. planners. engineering or economics. Why is urban design important? Urban design is a key to making places that are successful both socially and economically. and soon architects. It also helps to achieve value for money in new developments. Their mission was to change how the environment was shaped. .The Urban Design Group was formed. not just with designing a building to satisfy the client’s demands alone. But urban design has not turned into a new profession somewhere between architecture and planning. not just with land use. but with the physical form of development. and attractive to visit. and to make good use of scarce resources. The best urban design involves working in teams with groups of professionals with a wide range of complementary skills. What do urban designers do? 1. Highway engineers should use their skills to make places that are pleasant to be in and to walk through. New projects. Careful urban design may contribute to a reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour. landscape architects. They argued that architects should be concerned with the place. which local and central government and local communities greatly value. and it can help to deliver better public services. Designing built spaces – from whole towns and neighbourhoods to individual streets or squares. Planners should be concerned. It effective planning in the widest sense. new skills Twenty-five years later. and many in more than one field. Urban designers learn new skills and aptitudes with each project. engineers. can be applied mechanically for the rest of their careers. Landscape architecture should be involved in analysing and understanding sites at the start of the planning and design process. Some urban designers have a background in planning. public artists and a range of other professionals were declaring their commitment to urban design. rather than being brought in at a late stage to disguise ugly buildings with some planting. and with non-professionals who have their own knowledge and expertise. Urban design is essential in creating community identity. rather than focusing narrowly on keeping the traffic moving. once learned. Urban designers do not have a standard set of skills that. good to live in. Developing ‘visions’ for places – using creativity and imagination to invent or re-invent the environments we live and work in. urban design is a mainstream professional activity. some in geography.
spatial and psychological context of the places you work with and the people who use them. and ways of making them work better. how developers make their sums add up. What is an urban designer? A wide variety of people call themselves urban designers. The various urban design courses have different emphases. 6. This involves understanding how the planning system operates. political. There is no professional body that decides what should be on the curriculum of an urban design course. Community consultation – helping the public to take part in planning and designing their neighbourhoods. 7. 5. 3. exactly what you learn will depend on which university you choose. how to think about the future of small and large development sites. towns and villages. In one sense anyone who is involved in making places is active in urban design: hence the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL) brings together many of the built environment professions. Researching and analysing places and people – understanding the physical. how to involve local people. or what expertise and knowledge you need to be able to practise as an urban designer. how to conserve historic buildings. economic. how to negotiate. Developing guidance and policies relating to the built environment. as on other courses. Graphic representation – from sketching and technical drawing to using the latest technologies and packages in visualisation and computer aided design.Advising on the design of developments and regeneration projects. More about what urban designers do . An urban designer needs a broad understanding of cities. The urban designer is not expected to be an expert on all of them. and each explains a bit more about how urban places work. but it is essential to be able to see the whole picture. how to make places easy to move around by foot and vehicle. It is important to understand that urban design is not an accredited profession. 4. how to make the most of the landscape. and how to write design policy and guidance. Even if you do a university course in ‘urban design’. how to assess what makes a particular place special. That sounds like a lot of subjects! But they are all related. how to bring life to places that have become run down. Influencing people by using your skills and knowledge to help others make better decisions and teach them how to make successful places. how to make sure that projects actually happen. how to communicate effectively.
udg. See www. and the best urban designers take care not to use it to bamboozle people). It is not necessary to be a member of a professional institute at all in order to practise as an urban designer (similarly architects and planners do not have to be members of their professional institutes).org. We are all urban designers now The multi-professional nature of urban design is reflected in the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL). They recognise that all their members are. . UDAL sees its role as being to encourage closer collaboration between professions in their working lives and between their professional institutes. to some extent at least.A list elsewhere on this website sets out tasks that are carried out by urban designers (whether or not they call themselves that). Designing for an unpredictable future Towns and cities are constantly changing. There is probably no single person who is fully competent in all of them. Old professions like accountancy and the law may be relatively predictable. working. Others may use another professional label. including their landscape.uk/?document_id=332 Enjoying complexity Some people engaged in urban design call themselves urban designers (although at a party they may have to explain what that means). That does not mean that we can not plan and design. What it does mean is that we need to plan and design flexible frameworks that can accommodate change. We need to understand local economic and market conditions. waterways and ecologies. but who are fascinated by the complexity and endless variety of cities. we need to understand the past and the present. and they are happy not to fit into any professional pigeonhole. How will we be living. how they move about the area and what they hope for the place’s future. The terminology of the items on the list may not mean much to you (like any specialisation urban design has its own specialist language. shopping or enjoying ourselves in 10. urban designers. Think of the list as an exciting menu of possibilities. how they work. And we need to know about the people who live there – how they live. as their work shapes the built environment. and in ways that are unpredictable. We need to know about the physical characteristics of the places we are planning. or they may prefer not to be labelled at all. Urban design appeals to people who do not want a simple and predictable life. towns and villages. This brings together most of the built environment professional bodies and some associated organisations. 20 or 30 years time? We don’t know. Many urban designers are members of more than one professional institute. But the list of things that urban designers do will give you an idea of the range of tasks. In thinking about the future.
people who pass by the buildings and use adjoining spaces will have interests of their own. Reconciling these potentially conflicting interests will appeal to someone who likes a challenge. which is why many of the best urban designers have an acute political nose. for example) and in the private sector (for a consultancy or a developer. Any urban development is likely to affect different people in different ways. And the public interest concerns not just people today and in the immediate future. but perhaps also of those in other parts of the world who may bear the consequences of our use of resources. Day-to-day activities are very diverse. On top of that there is what is called ‘the public interest’.A nose for politics Whose interests do urban designers serve? It’s a tricky question. the people who will occupy the buildings have others. . for example). and in the public sector (for a local authority. but future generations that will face the consequences of our decisions. and there is huge scope to specialise and learn new skills. In a democracy that reconciliation happens through the political process. The public interest is not just of the people in the locality. nterested in becoming an urban designer? The scope of the job Urban design offers a great deal of variety. Throughout your career you can work around the world. The developer has certain interests. which is hard to define. for yourself and for others.
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