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What are Urban Design and Master Planning?

I was asked to define Urban Design and Master-planning in under 250 words each. The definitions will be used in an online application developed for the American Institute of Architects. After a brief intro those definitions can be found below.

As hard as it is to describe to lay people what architects do, it may be even harder to define urban design and describe what urban designers do. Too much are residents of cities used to a system where a city "just happens" and where what happens to the city is the result of politics and who has the power and not the result of masterplans or designs or big ideas.

Too discredited are the modernists' models of garden cities and new towns that well intended as they were proved to be sterile and even anti urban. Currently many settle with "Tactical Urbanism" as a way of using quick and bottom up response to shape cities rather than big ideas from the top.

Garden City, Ebenezer Howard

Nevertheless, ideas about cities, ideal plans and layouts, concepts that describe a framework for everything that makes a city are not at all a thing of the past.

In the age of cities with more people living in cities not only in absolute numbers, but also in relation to the still growing global population (by now more than half), new very large cities are created from scratch in great numbers and they all start with design.

Thus, the question what urban design is, is by no means obsolete and the same is true about the question of masterplanning.

Finding young, gifted and creative people who are willing to choose urban design as their profession, and to understand urban design as an important component of system planning, is vitally important to the future well-being of the planet.

They need a clear understanding what this field of study entails.


Urban design is the art of designing cities, i.e. architecture taken to the urban scale, the site, the neighborhood or an entire city.

It is age old, but as a specialized discipline in the US it was only institutionalized when Harvard started to offer Urban Design as a degree in 1960, after having introduced regional planning as a separate degree as early as 1923. Depending on the university and country, urban design is either part of the department of architecture as an elective, or minor for architecture students, or a separate degree.

While architecture focuses on the buildings, urban design focuses on relationships between buildings and on the spaces they create in between each other, often called the "public realm."

Urban design typically entails spatial relations whereas planning has become the regulatory framework that controls uses, circulation, open space and generally speaking, two dimensional relations between public and private space.

Urban design is typically not about regulation, but is more about designing a specific condition, and the art of designing a meaningful relation between the solid and the void, the building and the space, so that the void becomes as meaningful in its shape as the solid.

(Well illustrated in the figure ground representation of urban space). Urban design includes consideration of networks and non-physical aspects such as visual relations, communication, transport, air flow, infrastructure and the like in such a manner that solids, voids and the various systems form synergies, are sustainable, resilient, and equitable.

15 Principles of Wholeness

Christoper Alexander: 15 Principles of Wholeness from Christopher Alexander, Introduction of "A New Theory of Urban Design"

When we look at the most beautiful towns and cities of the past, we are always impressed by a feeling that they are somehow organic. 

This feeling of "organicness" is not a vague feeling of relationship with biological forms. It is not analogy.

It is instead, an accurate vision of a specific structural quality which these old towns had… and have. Namely: each of these towns grew as a whole, under its own laws of wholeness… and we can feel this wholeness, not only at the largest scale, but in every detail: in the restaurants, in the sidewalks, in the houses, shops, markets, roads, parks, gardens and walls.

Even in the balconies and ornaments.

This quality does not exist in towns being built today. And indeed, this quality could not exist, at present, because there isn't any discipline which actively sets out to create it. Neither architecture, nor urban design, nor city planning, take the creation of this kind of wholeness as their task. So of course it doesn't exist. It does not exist, because it is not being attempt.


Master planning is the creation of a framework in which development parcels, massing, heights, relationships of buildings, circulation, and streets are defined in enough detail to define predictable outcomes but with sufficient flexibility to allow various responses of actual developers and designers of which there may be several or many within one master plan area.

A special case are "planned unit developments" (name varies by jurisdiction), or PUDs, in which the master plan and the actual development plan are often collapsed into one.

Typically, master-plans are part of a regulatory planning toolkit and are formally adopted as part of zoning, comprehensive plans, "small area plans" or PUDs. Strategic plans of private entities or institutions are also often called master plans, even if they don't deal with traditional planning elements such as buildings.

Chinese New Town (SAA Architects)

Depending on the case, master plans can be more like two-dimensional planning documents codifying information for uses, heights, setbacks and the like, or be urban design documents including three dimensional aspects such as shapes, views, and other specific requirements which narrow down design options left to the designers of actual developments.

With the increasing popularity of form-based code versus use-based code (Euclidian zoning) master-planning has become increasingly a matter for architects more so than planners.

Master plans may include non-physical aspects such as funding, scheduling, or phasing. Larger organizations such as colleges or corporations may create master plans for their facilities that anticipate growth, transformation, and aim to create a blueprint for final build-out.

Increasing the term master plan is used outside the arena of buildings and just like the term "architecture," applied to organizational matters of various types.

Comments and suggestions refarding the defintions are welcome (best in the comments field below). We will investigate the creative act of design in architecture and urban design in future article on this blog.

The definitions were reviewed and edited by Joongsub Kim, Ph.D., AIA, AICP and Jess Zimbabwe, AIA both nominated as members of the Advisory Group of the Regional and Urban Design Knowledge Community of AIA

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