The Rise of Urban Design

Posted by Howard Blackson on 1/3/2014

Our nation's eighth largest city's typical Planning Commission public participation

For the past few years, I have been fortunate to sit on a couple of design review boards. My responsibility on these boards is, “limited to issues of aesthetics, including the design, siting, architectural detail, landscaping, and other related aesthetic concerns as outlined in community-scaled planning policies, zoning regulations, and design guidelines.” Very few of my dedicated decision-making colleagues have any “design, siting, coding and aesthetic” experience. This limited authority is essentially the three-dimensional basis of the urban design profession.


As a relatively new discipline, urban design addresses the relationship of new buildings, old buildings, groups of buildings, landscapes, streets and spaces within neighborhoods. In short, urban design is concerned with the function and character of buildings and spaces in specific places. Understanding how to assemble these elements is essential to determining a project’s inherently difficult-to-regulate aesthetic or community character concerns.


As an urban designer, it's agonizing to observe municipal planning staff, architects, developers, NIMBYs, and decision-makers struggle with articulating their perspectives when vetting complex projects within the confines of segregated land use-based development rules. Our design review dockets are filled with daily disputes, such as residential land use regulations coupled with ineffective historic design guidelines.  The historic restrictions do nothing to keep the front doors of new stacked flats from overlooking private backyards of neighboring detached homes.  We also hear parking conflicts that sit for years in static zoning regulations rather than being managed in more nimble parking districts.  We lack of any design tools to manage noisy bars and smelly restaurants that attract other people to already built-out neighborhoods beyond banning their use.


Segregated land use-based planning was a 20th century design tool created to mitigate for the 19th century’s industrial revolution.  This now irrelevant planning approach has now droned on into the 21st century creating unintended conflicts necessitating even further mitigation. Those historically noxious land use issues, such as locating a glue factory next to a school, gave rise to the need for decision-maker design discretion. However, as we re-urbanize, once noxious issues necessitating land use separation have now turned to decision-makers needing to mitigate for obnoxious conflicts between neighbors and citizens learning how to live together again.


Our conventional suburban development patterns rallied around these singular, one-off, flagship economic generators, such as convention centers, commercial strip centers, industrial parks and entertainment districts. But, this perspective has changed. The resulting isolated and auto-dependent areas of the past are no longer seen as economic silver bullets but as infrastructure maintenance siphons in need of innovative financing tools beyond tax abatements and wasteful highway subsidies.


This shift is not new. Throughout their history, local government decision-makers have followed cyclical planning and design trends, mostly in response to either bull or bear economic swings. These shifts vacillate between hiring outside expertise during good economic times, to only hiring knowledgable locals during recessions. General fund draining “Future Planning Departments” are being reinstated again after relying on fee generating “Current Development Departments.” This occurs as cities tend to increase discretionary reviews for new project processing in better years, over more administrative, ‘business-friendly,’ permit reviews during economic downturns. With the trend now towards living together (urbanism) being seen as an economic generator by cities, the need for more discretionary review is again on the rise.


With our planning and design aesthetic swinging back towards traditional place making development patterns of the early 20th century, which originally built our streetcar neighborhoods. Historically noxious industries issues are now being replaced by cleaner jobs and parking issues. Therefore, with walkable Main Streets being relied upon as economic development tax generators, our decision-makers need the new urban design tools to decide upon more complex and human-scaled redevelopments. The primary task of all new projects reviewed by a public decision-making body is to seamlessly link new developments into their surroundings in order to reinforce both monetary and aesthetic values. And, they’ll need urban design training in order to vet these new urban issues.

The intended results (how often do we achieve such?)

Training for new urban design issues are readily available. The Congress for the New Urbanism has an excellent accreditation program here. Planetizen, an urban planning professionals website, provides free courses and training here. And, most universities that offer urban design and planning degrees also have courses and lessons online, such as MIT’s Planning Department’s Open Courseware here.


We know new development must adequately accommodate for cars, but now it must do so in ways that respect the pedestrian and the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use.  We should be considering first and foremost that people are served by the interconnectedness of the public realm and their private lives, and how the quality of these spaces affect the quality of our lives. The revitalization of urban places, where people live, work, play, and shop together, depends on safety, security and respect for each others public and private realms. A timeless place-making lesson that decision-making boards should learn is how to balance public and private interests, as this aesthetic goes beyond the archaic segregation of land uses.

Howard Blackson, CNU-A is the Chairman of the California Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism and is the Director of Urban Design for Placemakers. He blogs at and tweets at