Op-Ed: What Is Urban Design?

Urban Design is a newly formed discipline, traversing the space between the more established fields of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning. It maintains an interstitial state, having been born of a need to bridge disciplines and render liveable our cities (Sert, 1953). In Eve Bleu’s “The Common Ground of Urban Praxis” the discipline is compared to the core of an apple, where it’s knowledge is inherited but pollenates new ground for intellectual and aesthetic growth. Though these words ring a familiar tone one cannot but feel the discipline is more fluid than a core; flowing between the constellations of knowledge on the firmament of the industry. In this regard it may be more ambiguous and harder to pin down; the dark matter that balances the rigid anatomical forces of architecture, energies of planning and biological entropy of landscape architecture.


When we raise this question of what is urban design, or even urbanism for that matter, we unfold more than a question of limits but also what can be considered urban? Looking through the lens of what Alex Krieger lists as a faculty of the discipline; Landscape Urbanism, we no longer see a defined edge between natural and unnatural. The Athropocene thesis brings with it an argument and evidence that all nature is denatured, having felt the consuming reach of industrialisation. What the core samples within the artic tell us is that the entire planet has been perturbed by the mechanics of an advancing techne-sism . Thus when we discuss the natural we really discussing a new extension of urbanism – new material pallets that remain upon the earth tinged with the flavour of post-industrialisation. Somewhere between Etienne Turpin’s “Architecture and the Anthropocene” and Manuel Castells “Space of Flows, Space of Place” arises a persuasive argument that everything can be considered urban.


Today’s best urbanism is undertaken by yesterday’s best architects. Placing those who have “produced at best a few scattered good examples of isolated buildings” (Sert, 1953) in a position to consider fleets of such objects in relation to one another. The systemic configuration of bounded objects over a space is reminiscent of Henri Lefevre idea of urbanism as a structural and logistical operation.


If Planning is the Architect of the Matrix, confronted by Neo on it’s inevitable failure, Urban Design is the Oracle who sent him. While Planning operates in a top down nature, imposing codes and regulations upon the masses it is urban design that operates in what Krieger defines as a Territory beneath it. Operating in the ‘Terrare’ – the landscape of violence that occurs in the ‘reality’ beneath planning – Urban Design can assume a bottom up role, balancing the needs of the many with some clairvoyance of planning.


“Urban design needs to grow beyond its narrowly described fixation on the “quality” of life to include its very possibility. This will require a dramatically broadened discourse of effects that does not establish its authority simply analogically or artistically but that is inculcated with the project of enhancing equity and diversity and of making a genuine contribution to the survival of the planet. Our cities must undergo continuous retrofit and reconfiguration, their growth rigorously managed, and we must build hundreds of new towns and cities along radically sustainable lines as a matter of utmost urgency.” (Sorkin, Pg 181).


A final way to autopsy the discipline is through it’s occupation in time and relation to Sorkin’s radical sustainability. While architecture and even landscape architecture problematize the issues of tomorrow urban design and planning contend with the issues of next century. The scale in which the discipline can move bestows upon it the responsibility to design reflexively, wrestling with what Donna Harroway refers to as ‘monsters’ and Liam Young calls ‘monstorology’. Urban Design has the capacity to engage issues that are beyond the scale of each discipline and give form to solutions geared toward; climate change, mass urbanisation and exponential increase in storm activity.


1 Techne is etymologically derived from the greek word τέχνη, typically translated as craftsmanship or craft. Techne here is used in it’s evolution to technology and later techno-romanticism.




Krieger, Saunders, 2009. Urban Design. 1st ed. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. Pg 113-130, Pg 155-182


Sert, L, Mumford, E, 2015. The Writings of Josep Lluis Sert. 1st ed. London/Cambridge: Yale University Press. Pg 33-40


Turpin, E, 2013. Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, 1st ed. Open Humanities Press




Blau, E, 2014, The Common Ground of Urban Praxis, Harvard Design Magazine, n 37, Pg 4-5


Online Journal Article:


Castells, M, 2004. Space of Flows, Space of Place. [Online]. Pg 440-457. Available at: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CCoQFjABahUKEwig-a70-OPHAhXF8j4KHdnLAPM&url=http%3A%2F%2Fdesign.epfl.ch%2Fwiki%2Ftiki-download_file.



The Matrix, 1999. [DVD] A, Wachowski, L, Wachowski, USA: Village Roadshow Pictures.

© Hayden White