Urban design is the process of designing and shaping cities, towns and villages. Whereas architecture focuses on individual buildings, urban design address the larger scale of groups of buildings, of streets and public spaces, whole neighborhoods and districts, and entire cities, to make urban areas functional, attractive, and sustainable.
Urban design is an inter-disciplinary subject that unites all the built environment professions, including urban planning, landscape architecture, architecture, civil and municipal engineering. It is common for professionals in all these disciplines to practice in urban design. In more recent times different sub-strands of urban design have emerged such as strategic urban design, landscape urbanism, water-sensitive urban design, and sustainable urbanism.
Urban design demands a good understanding of a wide range of subjects from physical geography, through to social science, and an appreciation for disciplines, such as real estate development, urban economics, political economy and social theory.
Urban design is about making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric. Urban design draws together the many strands of place-making, environmental stewardship, social equity and economic viability into the creation of places with distinct beauty and identity. Urban design is derived from but transcends planning and transportation policy, architectural design, development economics, engineering and landscape. It draws these and other strands together creating a vision for an area and then deploying the resources and skills needed to bring the vision to life.
Urban design theory deals primarily with the design and management of public space (i.e. the 'public environment', 'public realm' or 'public domain'), and the way public places are experienced and used. Public space includes the totality of spaces used freely on a day-to-day basis by the general public, such as streets, plazas, parks and public infrastructure. Some aspects of privately owned spaces, such as building facades or domestic gardens, also contribute to public space and are therefore also considered by urban design theory. Important writers on urban design theory include Christopher Alexander, Peter Calthorpe, Gordon Cullen, Andres Duany, Jane Jacobs, Mitchell Joachim, Jan Gehl, Allan B. Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, Aldo Rossi, Colin Rowe, Robert Venturi, William H. Whyte,Camillo Sitte, Bill Hillier(Space syntax), and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.
While urban design and urban planning are both closely related, they differ in two respects. Firstly, urban design can be argued to relate to the proactive design of urban areas, whereas the urban planning tends, in practice, to focus on the management of private development through established regulatory planning methods and programs, and other statutory development controls, although the extent to which this is actually the case will depend on the systems of urban governance and development management in place. Secondly, urban design focuses on the design, quality, character and appearance of places, including buildings and the spaces between them. Urban planning, on the other hand, also relates to the uses to which those places and spaces are put, and the ways in which they relate to each other. Again, the distinction between the two highly interrelated activities will depend on the local legislative context.
Urban design is concerned with the arrangement, appearance and function of our suburbs, towns and cities. It is both a process and an outcome of creating localities in which people live, engage with each other, and engage with the physical place around them.
Urban design involves many different disciplines including planning, development, architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, economics, law and finance, among others.
Urban design operates at many scales, from the macro scale of the urban structure (planning, zoning, transport and infrastructure networks) to the micro scale of street furniture and lighting. When fully integrated into policy and planning systems, urban design can be used to inform land use planning, infrastructure, built form and even the socio-demographic mix of a place.
Urban design can significantly influence the economic, environmental, social and cultural outcomes of a place:
- Urban design can influence the economic success and socio-economic composition of a locality—whether it encourages local businesses and entrepreneurship; whether it attracts people to live there; whether the costs of housing and travel are affordable; and whether access to job opportunities, facilities and services are equitable.
- Urban design determines the physical scale, space and ambience of a place and establishes the built and natural forms within which individual buildings and infrastructure are sited. As such, it affects the balance between natural ecosystems and built environments,and their sustainability outcomes.
- Urban design can influence health and the social and cultural impacts of a locality: how people interact with each other, how they move around, and how they use a place.
Although urban design is often delivered as a specific ‘project’, it is in fact a long-term process that continues to evolve over time. It is this layering of building and infrastructure types, natural ecosystems, communities and cultures that gives places their unique characteristics and identities.
ELEMENTS OF URBAN DESIGN
This diagram shows the approximate hierarchical relationship between the elements of urban design, followed by a brief definition of each of the elements. The section below provides basic explanations for terms that are commonly used for urban design in the Australian context.
Elements of urban form macro to micro
The overall framework of a region, town or precinct, showing relationships between zones of built forms, land forms, natural environments, activities and open spaces. It encompasses broader systems including transport and infrastructure networks.
The balance of open space to built form, and the nature and extent of subdividing an area into smaller parcels or blocks. For example a ‘fine urban grain’ might constitute a network of small or detailed streetscapes. It takes into consideration the hierarchy of street types, the physical linkages and movement between locations, and modes of transport.
DENSITY + MIX
The intensity of development and the range of different uses (such as residential, commercial, institutional or recreational uses).
HEIGHT + MASSING
The scale of buildings in relation to height and floor area, and how they relate to surrounding land forms, buildings and streets. It also incorporates building envelope, site coverage and solar orientation. Height and massing create the sense of openness or enclosure, and affect the amenity of streets, spaces and other buildings.
STREETSCAPE + LANDSCAPE
The design of public spaces such as streets, open spaces and pathways, and includes landscaping, microclimate, shading and planting.
FACADE + INTERFACE
The relationship of buildings to the site, street and neighbouring buildings (alignment, setbacks, boundary treatment) and the architectural expression of their facades (projections, openings, patterns and materials).
DETAILS + MATERIALS
The close-up appearance of objects and surfaces and the selection of materials in terms of detail, craftsmanship, texture, colour, durability, sustainability and treatment. It includes street furniture, paving, lighting and signage. It contributes to human comfort, safety and enjoyment of the public domain.
Much of urban design is concerned with the design and management of publicly used space (also referred to as the public realm or public domain) and the way this is experienced and used.
The public realm includes the natural and built environment used by the general public on a day-to-day basis such as streets, plazas, parks, and public infrastructure. Some aspects of privately owned space such as the bulk and scale of buildings, or gardens that are visible from the public realm, can also contribute to the overall result.
At times, there is a blurring of public and private realms, particularly where privately owned space is publicly used.
TOPOGRAPHY, LANDSCAPE AND ENVIRONMENT
The natural environment includes the topography of landforms, water courses, flora and fauna—whether natural or introduced. It may be in the form of rivers and creeks, lakes, bushland, parks and recreational facilities, streetscapes or private gardens, and is often referred to as ‘green infrastructure’.
SOCIAL + ECONOMIC FABRIC
The non-physical aspects of the urban form which include social factors (culture, participation, health and well-being) as well as the productive capacity and economic prosperity of a community. It incorporates aspects such as demographics and life stages, social interaction and support networks.
The size, bulk and perception of a buildings and spaces. Bulk refers to the height, width and depth of a building in relation to other surrounding buildings, the street, setbacks and surrounding open space. For example, a large building set amongst other smaller buildings may seem ‘out of scale’.
The arrangement of a built up area. This arrangement is made up of many components including how close buildings and uses are together; what uses are located where; and how much of the natural environment is a part of the built up area.