Urban Design: What is It? How Can We Tell If It Is Good?

Market Square, Knoxville, August 2018
Market Square, Knoxville, August 2018

I’ve joked that before I started writing this blog I didn’t know that the words “urban” and “design” went together. I wasn’t really joking. I’m not sure most people commonly used the word “design” a decade or so. Now we run into graphic design, urban design, interior design, landscape design, fashion design and more, all the time. It seems design is being talked about at every turn.

But what is it and how can we tell if it is good? Specifically considering urban design, what does that mean? What makes us love certain cities and want to return to enjoy them again and again? What urban spaces do you love locally and why? As we build our city at an ever-increasing pace, are we maintaining the attraction and building on it or are we diminishing it? It’s important that we pay attention because we are building our grand-children’s Knoxville.


MacDougal Street, New York City, November 2018

The website Urban Design says that urban design, “involves the design and coordination of all that makes up cities and towns.” That’s pretty general, but it lists five included and critical elements: Buildings, Public Space, Streets, Transport and Landscape. Of course, they all flow together to give us that good feeling of place that makes us want to return.

Well designed buildings and groups of buildings work together to create a sense of place . . . Great public spaces are the living room of the city – the place where people come together to enjoy the city and each other . . . Streets are the connections between spaces and places, as well as being spaces themselves . . . The pattern of the street network is part of what defines a city and what makes each city unique . . .

Transport systems connect the parts of cities and help shape them, and enable movement throughout the city.  The best cities are the ones that elevate the experience of the pedestrian while minimizing the dominance of the private automobile . . . The landscape is the green part of the city that weaves throughout – in the form of urban parks, street trees, plants, flowers, and water in many forms. The landscape helps define the character and beauty of a city and creates soft, contrasting spaces and elements.

That helps, but the devil is you know where. What is a “well designed building?” Who decides if the buildings “work together?” And on it goes. Describing good urban design or something specific like “well designed buildings” is difficult for most of us. We love Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, London, Paris and more. Something feels right. Something feels alive. Articulating what gives us those positive feelings and producing that in our own new construction is elusive at best.

Paris, July 2011

An archived article from a now inactive website devoted to design, A Dash of Design tackled the subject by listing the Top Ten Indicators of Good Urban Design. You can read their entire list there, but they emphasize that a “space becomes a place,” and that any construction or design takes into account the history and landscape of its location. Mixed use and “cohesion, not uniformity” are cited as critical elements. Mixed use because it keeps the area alive all day and night and the structures must work together, but not be the same.

They also emphasize economic viability. A pie in the sky design that never happens just wastes our time, while a building simply built to maximize short-term profits is very unlikely to include good design. They also feel well-designed development considers groups which are diverse economically and otherwise, is “environmentally conscious” and “focuses on the people, not the car.”

St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Celebrations, Gay Street, Market Square and Krutch Park, Knoxville, March 2018

Not all new construction is equally successful in checking off these boxes. Is a building interesting to look at? Does it draw in pedestrians or send a signal to keep moving to a more interesting spot? Does it work well with the buildings around it or is it out of place? Is it quality construction or will it be falling apart in fifteen years after the developers have made their money and moved on?

It’s hard for those of us who aren’t developers or architects and have little-to-no knowledge of the construction process to master enough of the information to know good design when we see it and to insist on it for our city. Are the current large projects good design? If not, what are we going to do about it? Are our mayoral candidates and city council members looking for ways to ensure that development is high quality? Is that something they pay attention to? How can we make sure that happens going forward?

Urban Monster at the Sunsphere.

The latest example is the northwest corner of Summit Hill Drive and Gay Street. What happens there will likely be the last thing that happens to that block in our lifetime, so it needs to be good. That spot connects “uptown and the Old City. It continues our grandest street. It’s a lifeline to the 100 block of Gay Street. It’s across the street from the spot many of our visitors start. Will we accept “good enough” or demand excellence?

Re-Code Knoxville isn’t a design plan, but it does get at some of these questions. I talked to Gerald Green, Executive Director of the Knoxville/Knox County Planning Agency (formerly Metropolitan Planning Commission) this past Sunday on KnoxCentric (WUTK, 90.3 FM, Sunday Mornings at 10:00 AM) about Recode, but also about what makes good urban design. Listen to the podcast and join me in demanding excellence for our amazing little city.