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thoughts on our urban future

What makes an Urban Designer?

Without fail when you tell someone you are an urban designer for the first time, if they have never heard of it before, at some point later in the conversation or the next time you meet them, they will call you a planner.  This will usually either be ignored or prompt a small lecture about how an urban designer is different from an urban planner.  But in truth, I think very few people outside of the professional industry particularly understand the differences.

Urban Design is not an accredited profession.  Usually I think of it more as a specialty that attracts individuals from architecture, planning, or landscape architecture backgrounds.  However, there is no particular measure of an urban designer.  Anyone may choose to call themselves one, regardless of skill or training, although there are of course things to look out for to ensure that someone actually has the skills desired.

Someone has written a fairly good representation of the problem at hand on Wikipedia as follows:

“Urban design concerns the arrangement, appearance and functionality of towns and cities, and in particular the shaping and uses of urban public space. It has traditionally been regarded as a disciplinary subset of urban planning, landscape architecture, or architecture and in more recent times has been linked to emergent disciplines such as landscape urbanism. However, with its increasing prominence in the activities of these disciplines, it is better conceptualized as a design practice that operates at the intersection of all three, and requires a good understanding of a range of others besides, such as real estate development, urban economics, political economy and social theory.”

There are many graduate programs in urban design, urbanism, landscape urbanism, metropolitan studies, etc.  That’s a good start for assessing a candidate.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has the skills desired or needed to be an urban designer.  So what are those skills?

For me one of the critical differences between ‘designer’ and ‘planner’ is the design requirement.  Urban designers must be able to visualize, conceive, and articulate plans and proposals which take into account any number of factors about how the space that humans occupy works, and will work, as it is manipulated and changed.  There is also a flaw in the phrase ‘urban designer’ as it is not necessarily a set of skills that is restricted to urban environments only.  Large scale city design development or regional strategic design development may include any number of land uses including rural or greenbelt and everything else in between.

In general I believe urban design is about being able to understand the factors that influence the use of space, understand the future aims, goals, and/or needs of or for that space, and having the ability to visualize or conceptualize the framework under which the desired future is to be constructed.  I realize that this sounds vague, but then urban design can operate at a huge diversity of scale- from national/regional strategies to individual local development sites. The way that these different scales are represented and conveyed, and the level of detail required will be very different based on the scale of the project.  But the basis of the task itself is similar although the factors to be taken into account for each project are scale and project specific.

So that’s one thing that should be required- the ability to identify significant influencing factors on spacial use.  This is followed by the second requirement, the ability to visualize or ‘design’ and understand how changes or manipulations of these factors will impact the space in question.  Arguably there is also a less tangible component to this which is that the design needs to be ‘good’.  Although that is quite possibly a topic for another post.

Of course we are often talking about existing places with local residents and potential multitudes of stakeholders.  So how does one go about truly gaining understanding of place (a requirement for being able to understand how factors will operate)?  The ability to orchestrate community engagement or consultation would be my third required skill.  Now saying that, some people may argue that this is not always necessary, and there are many examples of urban designers being tasked with ‘imposing’ their vision on a place without taking much account of local issues.  I guess from my writing of this, my opinion on this approach is fairly obvious, so I’ll flag this up as a requirement, even though I acknowledge that others may feel perfectly fine operating without it (although they are, in my opinion, wrong).

Of course all of this knowledge and understanding is fairly useless unless you can communicate your ideas both visually and verbally.  So the fourth through twelfth set of requirements incorporate an extensive set of skills required for communication.  First and foremost, I don’t believe you can be a successful urban designer without visual representation skills and actually, I would further suggest you need a strong and diverse range of visual representation skills.  This includes the ability to hand draw your ideas on the back of a napkin as well as producing some 3D polished computer graphics (again, somewhat debatable, but in this day and age if you can’t do this, you need to doubly make up for it in other ways).  The visual representation required for each project should be based on the needs of the project itself.  There will never be one right way to draw up urban design projects.  They change as much with the specific needs of the project as they do with current fashion trends.

But drawing up your project is useless without the words to go with it.  Urban design project outputs will often include substantial written reports, unlike for example, most architecture projects.  So there are written verbal communication skills required as well.  Many urban design project include a massive amount of factors and components that need to be delivered in a digestible and useful way to the client.  Urban design drawings are also often (though pretty) undecipherable to a non-design trained person and so the words are doubly required to ensure that the correct meaning and intent is conveyed.

Of course written words are not the only kind, and verbal communication is also a critical requirement.  Urban designers must often coordinate diverse members of the design team as well as external stakeholders and the ways that each party must be communicated with will often depend on their level of experience and knowledge about the specific issues at hand.  The urban designer should be able to convey their vision or strategy or design to all of these people using words that they understand and that are relevant to them.  They should be able to answer questions and articulate credible responses, sometimes on the fly.  They may have to give presentations or lead large groups in consultation exercises so they need to be able to communicate effectively.

This is already a tall order, and I’m sure there are other requirements that I am missing.  As in many professions, it is not uncommon for an urban designer to be better in some of these areas than others, and if they work in a team, they may be able to pass over some responsibilities to team members better suited.

So I’m curious.  Do you agree?  Disagree?  What other skills do you think are necessary to be a good urban designer?  And as a side note question, is our profession hampered by this general lack of definition?

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