The term urban design was probably first coined in North America in the late 1950s. The American Institute of Architecture established a Committee on Urban Design and the first university course in the subject was established at Harvard in 1960. In the UK, the Urban Design Group was formed in 1978 to bring together people involved in the decision making, creation and use of urban environments. The group involves professional disciplines and local interests including architects, planners, developers, surveyors, landscape architects, engineers, local authorities and communities. The term urban design is given definition by the Government in Planning Policy Guidance Note 1 as:
"Urban Design should be taken to mean the relationship between different buildings; the relationship between buildings, streets, squares, parks, waterways and other spaces which make up the public domain; the nature and quality of the public realm itself; the relationship of one part of a village, town or city with other parts; and the patterns of movement and activity which are thereby established: in short, the complex relationships between all the elements of built and unbuilt space. As the appearance and treatment of the spaces between and around buildings is often of comparable importance to the design of the buildings themselves, landscape design should be seen as an integral part of urban design."
Urban design thus encompasses anything from the design of a building or small-scale environmental improvements, to proposals for an entire new settlement. It can be the day-to-day exercise of design control by a local planning authority, to the formulation of a design strategy and policies for a metropolitan region. Four types of urban design can be identified and each require particular combinations of knowledge and skill:
URBAN DEVELOPMENT DESIGN Where a design(er)/team have extensive responsibility for the preparation and implementation of an overall masterplan for a development project. Architects for the individual buildings or spaces will be expected to work within this plan. Urban development design is the domain of architects supported by landscape architects and other designers. An example is the Embankment Place development above Charing Cross Station in London, which included improvements to Embankment Gardens and adjacent streets.
DESIGN POLICY GUIDANCE AND CONTROL The planning process is informed through design guidance and controls applied from outside the development process. It usually places a higher value on existing environments than development design. Activities include area appraisals, design strategy and policy formulation, the preparation of supplementary design guidance and briefs, and the exercise of design or aesthetic control. This is the domain of planners supported by architects, landscape architects, and conservation officers. It works at many levels: in Birmingham there is a City Centre Design Strategy, and a framework for the smaller Digbeth Quarter.
PUBLIC REALM DESIGN This includes all roads and streets, footpaths and pavements, car parks, public transport interchanges, parks and other urban spaces that collectively form the public realm of towns and cities. Again it works at many levels: the development of Manchester's Metrolink or the traffic calming of a single street in a suburban residential area. All too often, the public realm ends up as a set of uncoordinated decisions and actions taken by the many parties. Engineers, planners, architects, landscape architects, and others engage in this type.
COMMUNITY URBAN DESIGN This is the most under-developed type of urban design. It has some roots in community architecture and community planning. It seeks to work with and in communities developing proposals from the grass-roots level; and utilises a range of approaches and techniques aimed at engaging with the people who will make use of the environment. This kind of urban design practice is particularly applicable at the neighbourhood scale, in situations where community development and economic regeneration are as important objectives as is physical renewal. Some of its methods and techniques are slowly being incorporated into the other types of urban design. The community urban designer has may similarities with the Permaculture Designer – and there is more similarity when the abilities and activities of urban designers are compared.
Urban designers need to be able to analyse places and understand how they are used and experienced. They need to be able to design and then to understand how proposals can be implemented; and they need to be able to work with others, operate within a range of organisational frameworks and cope with decision environments that may be constantly changing. All those involved in urban design should have an appreciation of the nature of cities and urbanism including urban form, issues and policies and the processes of urban change and development.
Five areas of urban design activity have been identified based on the principal stages in the process of urban design, at whatever scale. You may think that these activities are similar to design sequences (i.e.: BREDIM, SADI):
ANALYSIS An audit of the characteristics of a site to give a sense of place i.e. physical settings such as townscape and site appraisal, activity/user profile, movement studies (i.e. people flows) and meanings and associations (public perceptions /images)
COLLABORATION The range of contributors to urban design and the need for urban designers to work with others, including with local communities, shows the importance of participative approaches and techniques.
DESIGN POLICY FORMULATION Policies are required to deal with the breadth of urban design issues and activities over the full range of spatial scales (national and regional to local and site specific); contexts (growth, stagnation, decline); situations (city centre, inner city, urban fringe, green field); development types (residential, offices, retailing, mixed-use); and environments (urban landscapes, natural landscapes, the public realm).
DESIGN Building, landscape and engineering design, site planning (locate structures and activities in space and, when appropriate, in time) masterplanning (offering a three-dimensional vision of future form) framework design (guide and manage long-term development proposals) and illustrative design and visioning (offering a vision in the future)
IMPLEMENTATION Traditionally urban design has paid only limited attention to how plans and proposals could be implemented. As a consequence the quality of outcomes have failed to match expectations. To be effective therefore, implementation requires a capacity for initiative, innovation, creativity, negotiation, collaboration, and management.
The DETR (now DTLR) brought out a guide on urban design – By Design - in June 2000. The guide aims to promote higher standards in urban design amongst local authorities and architects, builders etc. No new policy was announced as Government had already laid this out for the planning system in Planning Policy Guidance Note 1 General Policy and Principles (PPG1 – see definition of urban design from it overleaf). PPG1 contains a challenge "good design should be the aim of all those involved in the development process and should be encouraged everywhere". Following on, the central message of this design guide is that careful assessment of places; well-drafted policies, well-designed proposals, robust decision-making and a collaborative approach are needed throughout the country if better places are to be created. The guide is relevant to all aspects of the built environment, including the design of buildings and spaces, landscapes and transport systems. It has implications for planning and development at every scale: in villages as well as cities and for a street and its neighbourhood as well as regional planning strategies.
The guide sets out the road to greater care being taken in the design of neighbourhoods. Many small developments that often add up in changing a place dramatically are designed by people with little or no formal design training. Urban design is the art of making places for people. It includes the way places work, the safety of communities, as well as how they look. It concerns the connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric, and the processes for ensuring successful villages, towns and cities. It is a key to creating sustainable developments and the conditions for a flourishing economic life, for the prudent use of natural resources and for social progress. Good urban design can help create lively places with distinctive character; streets and public spaces that are safe, accessible, pleasant to use and human in scale; and places that inspire because of the imagination and sensitivity of their designers.
PLACE-MAKING There are many benefits to be gained from thinking coherently about the way places are designed. The Urban Task Force led by Lord Rogers underlined the importance of good urban design to urban renaissance. Successful urban design requires a full understanding of the conditions under which decisions are made and development is delivered. Many factors determine or influence the outcome of the design process and the sort of places we make. One aim of the guide is to encourage a move away from a negative reliance on standards towards a more positive emphasis on performance criteria. Standards specify precisely how a development is to be designed (by setting out minimum distances between buildings, for example). Performance criteria are the means of assessing the extent to which a development fulfils a specific planning requirement (such as maintaining privacy). Imaginative designers can respond to performance criteria with a variety of design solutions and through their ability to analyse places, to understand how they are used and experienced, and to design with flair and sensitivity.
OBJECTIVES OF URBAN DESIGN Good urban design is rarely brought about by a local authority prescribing physical solutions, or by setting rigid or empirical design standards, but by approaches which emphasise design objectives or principles. Successful streets, spaces, villages, towns and cities tend to have characteristics in common. These factors have been analysed to produce principles or objectives of good urban design. They help to remind us what should be sought to create a successful place. There is considerable overlap between the objectives and they are mutually re-inforcing. Here are the basic objectives from the guide. Much greater detail with examples is given for each in the guide:
Mark Fisher - Permaculture Design course handout notes