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WHAT IS URBAN DESIGN?

Urban design falls between the professions of planning and architecture. It deals with the large-scale organization and design of the city, with the massing and organization of buildings and the space between them, but not with the design of the individual buildings.

Several factors distinguish urban design from architectural design. Urban design deals with a large scale, such as entire neighborhoods or cities, and with long time frames, frequently 15 to 20 years. For example, Haussmann's work in Paris required 17 years. This is a sharp contrast to the one, two, or three years usually required for the construction of a single building. Urban design also deals with a large number of variables, such as transportation, neighborhood identity, pedestrian orientation, and climate. This complexity, combined with the long periods of time involved, results in an environment characterized by high uncertainty. The control over specific development is less direct than with a single building. As a result, many of the techniques employed by urban designers differ from those of the architect.

Although the urban designer and planner have complementary roles, they do have separate and distinct functions. Most commonly, the modern urban designer deals with a part of the city. Very often, the site on which the urban designer works has been allocated as part of a larger planning process. It is after that allocation is made that the urban designer examines the site in terms of massing and spatial organization. The planner, by contrast, must typically consider the entire city. In fact, very often he or she must look beyond the bounds of the city and understand how the city functions as part of a larger region; for example, how the transportation system of the city relates to surrounding suburbs and communities. Thus the planner plays a central role in allocating the uses of land among the competing functions. Planners are more likely than urban designers to be involved in the political process whereby public policy is formulated. Planners and urban designers are each involved with a spectrum of social, cultural, and physical design issues. The difference is a matter of degree.

Numerous urban designers are employed by developers on a variety of residential, commercial, and mixed-use projects. But many urban designers are also employed by public bodies. For example, during the period of Urban Renewal (see Chapter 11), sites were acquired, cleared, and planned by Urban Renewal agencies. Parcels were then sold or leased to developers, who put up buildings or groups of buildings in accordance with the agency's overall plan. In this case the urban design was done by designers on the public payroll, and the architectural design was done by individuals or firms on the developer's payroll.

The role of urban design has grown in the past few decades. For large projects it permits a unity of concept that simply zoning and then allowing the area to fill in on the basis of a multiplicity of individual decisions does not. Uses can be selected to reinforce each other and, where necessary, common infrastructure that may be too expensive for a single building owner or parcel developer to finance can be provided and shared.

 
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