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The Importance of Urban Design for Your Community

The Importance of Urban Design for Your Community

All images used in this blog post have been provided courtesy of MAKERS

Urban design is the shaping of a community’s physical form in a way that considers a multiplicity of objectives and interests through an inclusive, public decision-making process. Combining the practices of architecture, planning, and landscape architecture, urban design addresses the functional and aesthetic qualities of the physical environment at a range of scales, from the individual streetscape, park, or block to the larger community, city, or region.

Although often thought of as being limited to intense urban settings, urban design tools and methods have been successfully used in suburban and rural communities and has even provided solutions to address environmental management challenges. Such tools have proven invaluable in implementing Washington State’s Growth Management Act in many ways, such as integrating land use and transportation infrastructure, focusing an intense mix of uses in urban center and transit hubs, providing housing opportunities, achieving compatibility between existing and new development, incorporating protected natural systems (e.g., stream corridors) into the urban fabric, and enhancing the livability of a wide variety of old and new communities.

What Is Urban Design?

Urban design, as defined by the late University of Washington Professor Meyer Wolfe, is the “manipulation of the physical environment” in a way that:

  • Addresses the way people perceive and behave in their surroundings,
  • Considers the implications of form-giving actions (including the environmental and ecological consequences) at a range of scales (sometimes from the individual to the regional),
  • Pursues multiple objectives for multiple clients (including affected members of the public), and
  • Is conducted through an explicit decision-making process that offers the public the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way, identifies goals and objectives, analyzes existing conditions, explores alternate concepts and solutions, evaluates options with respect to project goals and public values, selects the preferred alternative or combines preferred elements into a synthesized concept, and includes an implementation strategy.

This is a powerful definition because:

  • It carries a set of implicit values that all applicable urban design activities should pursue.
  • It provides a useful checklist for designers, planners, engineers, and other practitioners to use such that they are addressing urban design’s inherent values (as noted above).
  • It describes a rational participatory process and provides a clear methodology for applying urban design concepts.

Key Components of an Effective Approach

The following are four key components of an effective approach to urban design.

Urban design pursues multiple objectives for multiple clients

A critical, defining aspect of urban design that separates it from single-client master planning is that urban design is directed toward accomplishing a variety of objectives for all populations in a community. This sometimes involves balancing different interests, but a real benefit is that urban design can provide solutions that address more than one problem. For example, in rezoning a neighborhood to accommodate a variety of infill housing types, design guidelines can help ensure that the new structures “fit” with their neighbors. 


The image above is a design for a proposed lid over the SR 520 Roanoke interchange in Seattle. This design helped satisfy multiple objectives, including addressing concerns of adjoining neighborhoods and reconnecting portions of Seattle’s historic Olmsted Boulevard and its open space network. Although local transportation was the project’s focus, the urban design elements were necessary to build a consensus among agencies and local residents.

Urban design addresses the sensory environment

Urban design addresses how people perceive and use their environment. People care about the look, feel, and livability of their communities, and urban design tools are a planner’s most effective tools to address this need. To accomplish this, urban designers must be well-versed in the way human perception and behavior is affected by their physical surroundings, which also involves understanding cultural behaviors and preferences, economic factors, and functional activities associated with the physical environment.

For example, the Olympia Downtown strategy, which is shown in the image below, focused on a number of actions to reinforce the design character of the downtown’s six subdistricts, thereby increasing its visual and functional diversity. The strategy also included a number of key elements to deal with economic development, sustainability, and social equity that were supported by the design elements.


Urban design considers the implications of form-giving actions in a range of scales

A successful urban design project typically addresses conditions within the project boundaries but also the recommendations effects on the larger surroundings. At the same time, such efforts should examine how the proposed actions relate back to the experiences of the individual. Urban design is often thought of addressing only urban design features, such as a park, street, or town center, but urban design tools are also effective in addressing regional, landscape-scale objectives.  

The Delridge Triangle Plan is a good example of this approach. As image below demonstrates, the designers considers the local socio-economic context and related opportunities (i.e., the parks walkability gap, county equity score, and locations of several unused public right-of-way) in the redevelopment of the project site. Looking at the community context helped the neighborhood argue for additional city resources.


As Ian McHarg demonstrated decades ago, urban design methods have proven useful in addressing regional issues, as demonstrated in this downloadable graphic from A Regional Open Space Strategy for Puget Sound.

Urban design uses an explicit, public decision-making process

Broad and focused engagement techniques are critical in most public planning efforts and urban design brings with it a number of tools to help people participate meaningfully in the design process. This includes visual preference surveys in which participants evaluate different building types, park features, or environmental measures to identify which might fit best within their community. People also seem to respond well to hands-on exercises that allow them to identify the type and location of desired improvements. Children and youth also can add their thoughts through such exercises, and many urban design issues can be evaluated using web-based tools.


Urban design offers a wide variety of public engagement tools that allow for meaningful participation, and an urban designer can play an important role in the city/community building process in at least two ways:

  1. As a problem-solving supporter of a larger comprehensive planning or infrastructure development effort; and
  2. As a leader or manager of a complex, multi-disciplined professional team working on a complex project.

Urban design solutions have been key in implementing growth management activities and humanizing large infrastructure projects, as the image below demonstrates. 


At the same time, because urban design integrates other disciplines — including transportation, land use, environmental protection, housing, etc. — it is a logical discipline around which to approach, for example, a downtown or community plan, a transit-oriented development effort, or a large-scale redevelopment strategy.

Looking back at the definition of urban design has led me to the conclusion that, whether practiced by architects, landscape architects, or planners, it plays an important role in the broader spectrum of design and planning activities, and it can be a good career choice for those individuals who want to address some of our communities’ most critical challenges.

For a more detailed explanation, please read my paper, URBAN DESIGN: A Definition, Approach and Conceptual Framework.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of John Owen

About John Owen

John is a partner at MAKERS architecture and urban design. His work is focused on urban design, and he has become increasingly involved in regional and statewide issues planning, with projects ranging from helping the state prepare a new WAC for the Shoreline Management Act to working with the Puget Sound Regional Council in the development of regional environmental management and urban design strategies.

John writes for MRSC as a guest author. The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.