Urban Design?…a “definition” and a journey


So what is urban design anyway? I always ask my students this question the first day of class and have found myself asking it of others I meet networking, etc. I even asked my boyfriend this question the first day we met after telling him what I did for a living – do you even know what urban design is, I quipped – as I’m surprised when someone outside the field seems to have heard about urban design, or better yet knows what it means!


The answers I’ve gotten to this question throughout the years are usually all over the map (which I suppose is quite fitting):  the nexus between architecture and planning; the design of public space; creating visions for cities; writing design guidelines; or my favorite, it’s like playing SIM city. But honestly, the answer is rather elusive…not unlike the answer to that now proverbial question: “What is pornography? – I know it when I see it.” It’s hard to pin down what urban design is because it encompasses multiple scales; involves many players; is both a product and a process; addresses both functional and experiential aspects of everyday life; aims to transform cities both from an aesthetic and sociocultural perspective; and it’s both an art and a science. 


Actually, its exactly this seemingly schizophrenic, all-things-to-all-people nature of urban design that attracted me to the profession. In fact, to help my students grasp the transdisciplinary nature of urban design, I usually tell the story of how I got into it…


As an undergraduate at University of Miami (UM), I knew I wanted to major in Psychology as I loved to analyze people’s behaviors and thoughts – and yes, “diagnose” them! My family was quite amused…For my minor, I originally chose Criminology. I fancied myself the next “Profiler” and had big plans to join the FBI after school until I realized that required carrying a gun. I soon scrapped my plan to unravel the criminal mind and found myself drawn to Architecture, a discipline that had appealed to me early on as I built small models of a covered patio for my mother’s house, loved Tinkertoys (yes, very dated reference, I know), and in what was a very nerdy assessment, I felt that architecture encompassed all of the school subjects I loved – history, math, science, art, etc. (I loved school and I was – and am – terribly indecisive!). In any case, after feeling flutters of excitement each time I walked past the Architecture school at UM, I decided to switch my minor. An ensuing trip to Europe – my first one – solidified my interests in the built environment. However, I felt that I had come to some sort of schism, as I still had a strong interest in human behavior. I found myself at the young age of 19 taking the GRE and applying to graduate schools in both psychology and architecture (I already said I was a nerd – between AP classes, dual enrollment, and summer courses, I accrued enough credits to begin college as a second semester sophomore), thinking myself crazy. My friends joked with me – well, you can be a psychologist for architects or build houses for psychologists – I was not at all amused!


I ultimately decided to go with Architecture, enrolling in the Masters of Architecture program at UM, thinking that I didn’t want to regret the path not taken. I absolutely loved my first semester of that program – meeting great folks, staying at the studio till way past 2am (which is also how I ended up buying my very first cell phone as my mother was not too comfortable with me driving a beat-up 1987 Chevy Nova–in 1999– in the middle of the night with no way to reach her! When I tell my students that now, I feel SO old!), and finally turning 21 so I could drink my first Jack while sketching the next great piazza! But at the end of the semester, I felt that something was missing. I found myself scouring books in the library every time we had a new studio project, looking for guidelines and examples of previous work that could shape my thinking, and always focusing on the human component (how would a person react to the space I was building – how would they feel, behave, etc.) as opposed to the architectural details (my facades were quite demure, especially when juxtaposed with my intricately designed public spaces). After much agonizing, I decided to leave architecture school as I felt that something was just missing…


In the meantime, I had applied again for graduate schools in psychology (as a backup, because of course I would never allow myself to go more than a semester without working toward some degree) and had accepted an offer for an organizational psychology program. But (thankfully! – no offense to org. psych.) I thought the better of it and realized that I would likely confront the same issue – I’d be missing something…Instead, I began looking for a job and was looking for something “creative” and somehow ended up working in an internationally renowned advertising firm!? I was still just 21 and was feeling quite lost…My first day there, I realized that this job was not for me. Pushing papers around, organizing schedules, and meeting deadlines was not exactly my idea of being creative.  Guess I had a Mad Men vision of what advertising was long before that show had aired! In any case, feeing desperate and frustrated, I immediately “Yahoo-d” (yes, this also predates Google – and now my students really think I’m old!) “Psychology” and “Architecture” – and came across Roberta Feldman at the University of Illinois Chicago who had a PhD in Psychology and a Masters of Architecture! Eureka, I had finally found someone who had as seemingly divergent interests as my own – and for the first time in years felt normal again! I emailed her regarding my dilemma (I of course was already looking to reapply to grad school – driven by yes, my nerdiness, but also by my stubborn goal, as the daughter of a single immigrant mother, to attain the highest degree possible in whatever profession I chose to pursue). She replied, explaining what she did and pointed me to the Environmental Design Research Association (where there were even more people like me!). I was delighted that I had found a viable way to combine my two passions and that I could get trained to do what I had been doing instinctually in Architecture school…the rest is history…


I tell this story not only because I think it endears me to my students (and usually gets them laughing – which is harder than you would think!), but also because it showcases how multifaceted urban design really is. There are so many factors to consider when “practicing” urban design. So after divulging my career story and asking them the icebreaker question, what is urban design, I eventually give them this answer, which I have mostly borrowed from Public Spaces, Urban Places and CABE…Urban design is:

  • The Art and Science of Making Places (as a social-scientist at heart, I have to include science in there…especially as I believe this is what I was missing in Architecture school)

  • Process of creating and managing the physical setting for life in cities, towns & villages (the how)

  • Involves the design of buildings, groups of buildings, spaces and landscapes (the what)

  • The establishment of frameworks and processes which facilitate successful development (the methods)

  • Applied to BOTH the private and public realms

But I also emphasize that not only is urban design multifaceted, it also involves many actors that must come together in making decisions about the public realm. And yet many people – in decision-making capacities, still do not know what urban design is. That’s more OK if you’re just grappling with making a career choice like I was (though still frustrating), but less so if you’re making decisions that impact urban design unconsciously (see my last post about the primary colored public storage building near my mother’s house in Miami!).


What’s encouraging, however, is how much more popular the discourse regarding urban design has become. Many of these “actors” – across the public and private sectors – are indeed starting to realize that their decisions impact the public realm and the daily lives of many – or in other words, as Gehl put it, they are shaping the life between buildings…So ultimately, I suppose a more concise answer is that urban design really is about creating a liveable “village” (which come in many shapes and sizes) and it indeed takes a “village” to do so…





  1. Thank you for this post. I’ve just turned 21 and am finding my path moving towards urban design. It was nice to get some clarity on these abstract thoughts floating around my brain. I appreciate it!

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