Urban Design, how important is it for cities?

Urban design is the art of creating and shaping cities and towns. It involves the arrangement and design of buildings, public spaces, transport systems, services, and amenities. It is the process of giving form, shape, and character to groups of buildings, to whole neighbourhoods, and the city. It is a framework that orders the elements into a network of streets, squares, and blocks. Urban design blends architecture, landscape architecture, and city planning together to make urban areas functional and attractive. 

Urban design and urban planning

While the two fields are closely related, 'urban design' differs from 'urban planning' in its focus on the physical improvement of the public environment, whereas the latter tends, in practice, to focus on the management of private development through established planning methods and programmes, and other statutory development controls.

Recent years have seen a development in the use of design, as well as in design philosophy and design research. Design has come to mean more than shaping and aesthetics; it has increasingly become a strategic element in business innovation processes as well as in a number of societal development processes. A designer's ability to combine, for instance, designing with user understanding and overall solutions is increasingly becoming a competitive parameter when companies develop new products and services.

An increasing number of countries have invested in design to promote their image internationally, to raise awareness among local consumers of the value of design and product quality, and to increase interest from local industry in the benefits of design for business performance. Furthermore, many of these countries have also invested in developing their design educational systems and their capabilities within the area of design research.

How the city has changed

‘Seen in a long-term historical perspective, city space has always served three vital functions – meeting place, marketplace and connection place. As a meeting place, the city provided opportunities for social exchange of information of all kinds. As a marketplace, the city facilitated commercial exchange of goods and services. And finally, public spaces enabled access to and connections between all the functions of the city…Within a span of only a few decades, a city devoted primarily to working city and basic necessities has been transformed into a city of leisure and enjoyment.’ (Gehl et. al., 2006)

In New City Life by famous Danish architect Jan Gehl et. al. (2006) the story is told about a survey among people in Copenhagen’s city centre. The main question was, “What is the primary reason for your being in Copenhagen’s city centre?”. The response was measured at two moments in time. The first was in the 1970s when the answer was “shopping”. Later in 2005 the response was often “being in the city”. Therefore the conclusion was that city space is a goal in itself, a worthwhile asset in its own right. According to Gehl et. al. (2006) more people use the central city and have spent more time there over the past 40 years, including evenings and weekends when the shops are often closed. ‘All in all, this is a dramatic and remarkable development that offers lessons for other cities that want to improve their public spaces as a way to enliven and enrich the experience of urban life.’