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

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.


  1. Knoxville has such a long way to go. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Copenhagen, and it’s a bummer that real, user friendly design is years if not decades away for Knoxville. The new residence inn is a joke. Go to https://www.designboom.com for real urban design. We seem to be short sighted. Adding a bike icon on a street isn’t the same as creating barrier-bike lanes. Neyland drive should never have been made. But I’m starting to vent haha, it’s hard to compare Knoxville to the cities above, but I’d just love this city to put other modes of transportation, and inspiring design at it’s heart. From day one, not a 30 year plan. I saw a pecha kucha here by Knoxville based urban planners who want to use our current rail system to get metro to the airport. Should be started now!

  2. Kenneth M. Moffett says

    Knoxville’s little downtown has had enough in the way of old buildings available for renovation that there has actually been very little new construction for many years. Architecture as taught and practiced today, to most appearances and with a few exceptions, doesn’t really understand how to deal with the urban context. Form-based codes will help, but design review that has a measure of strength will be essential to achieve the sort of urban development that will enhance our downtown rather than debase it.

    “Vision plans” and silver bullet proposals have landed on the shelf over the years, and the current approach to “urban design” in the downtown would appear to be one of so-called organic growth, essentially allowing the profit motive of development to govern the space and form network of downtown. The urban space network in particular needs to be addressed, as at present there is none to speak of, and the profit motive will not provide it.

    Market Square is our only successful urban open space, and is itself arguably successful more in terms of activity than design, being in large part a featureless rectangle of concrete. Its appeal lies significantly in its strongly defined boundaries, and successful downtowns generally embody a crafted sequence, linked by the street network, of such well-defined “rooms,” which vary in scale, proportion and character.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      We have design review, but it has very little power to enforce serious design requirements. I’d love to see the local government have someone on staff who has power and demands that buildings add to the context rather than damage it. Maybe you could apply?

      • Kenneth Moffett says

        Unfortunately I know of no such a post. I did apply for the vacant position on the DRB, but was not chosen.

        • Dustin Jones says

          Agree with most of what you said except Market Square. I’m from Amarillo, TX—a similar sized city with similar sized downtown—but without a Market Square or fully occupied Gay St. I absolutely love Market Square and it’s design with atmosphere sights of TVA’s and Crowne Plaza.behind the stage–and with Krutch Park on the other side. Amarillo is finally trying something with a couple hotels and a baseball park, but if I was put in charge, I’d turn Polk St (smack middle of downtown) into a closed off Market Square at one end.

  3. “Well designed buildings and groups of buildings work together to create a sense of place” – the place is the Old City, and the new building at the corner of Willow and Central has destroyed the visual aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      I’d love to hear you explain how you feel that way. I’m not an architect or a designer, but I don’t feel that way. The height doesn’t seem out of proportion for the other buildings, though it is taller. I like the brick, glass and setbacks. I feel like it really completed that block and extends the area that feels good. What am I missing that makes it “destroy the aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood?”

    • Chris Eaker says

      I completely disagree. How has that new building somehow “destroyed the visual aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood” when the building it replaced was this: https://insideofknoxville.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/IMG_5026.jpg

      • Maybe because it looks like a hampton inn? Seriously though..Look at the hampton inn on henley and look at the crozier building. They look exactly alike. The argument of “well, we put this terrible looking building in the place of a really really terrible looking building” is kind of silly, imo. I think what they are saying is, something else could have been placed in that space that matched more with the existing architecture of the neighborhood. Not something that resembles a cheap chain hotel.

        But thats none of my business.

    • It’s actually the perfect height. It’s in between the height of the rest of the Old City buildings and the taller buildings across Summit Hill. Kind of like a stepping stone. I’m going to be crucified for this, but I feel like if Merchants of Beer had done a similar approach with their building instead of renovating a ( 90’s replica of a) 50’s diner, the buildings would compliment each other and present a sort of gateway into the Old City.

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