With urban design now at the top of the agenda for built-environment professionals, we take a look at the best way of getting an educational grounding in this discipline.
Traditionally architects have assumed that they are de facto urban designers; indeed, in most European countries the professional title is 'architect and urbanist', the latter implying anything from planning to urban design. In Britain the situation is different and, as a result of the split between the planning and architectural professions almost 50 years ago, the field of urban design remains ambiguous. Since the late '70s, under the aegis of the Urban Design Group, a consensus has been sought not by narrowly defining a new profession but by showing that urban design is an inclusive activity resulting from the collaboration of many different disciplines: the focus is not the buildings as such but the public realm, and the design of larger areas, at a different scale from that at which architects are normally accustomed to working.
This has meant accepting that there are different types of urban designers: those that design the public realm and those that commission or supervise schemes. Finding a formula for educating urban designers has not been easy: those involved - whether academics or practitioners - have been debating the issue for over a decade.
The perfect architect is probably a good urban designer - as is the perfect planner, engineer or even the perfect client. But the rest of us need to find an urban design course that is suitable for 'imperfect' professionals from disparate backgrounds. I believe that many MA courses in urban design offer precisely that.
In many British architectural schools, architectural education emphasises the design of the object. The consideration of context is not very strong unless design is for a site in a conservation area. Although many projects use context as a starting point, it is mostly used for generating ideas and is not analysed in a comprehensive and systematic manner. More importantly, architects and their employers are concerned with the site but rarely with the public realm, the experience of the pedestrian walking past the scheme, or its impact on the area as a whole. Planning authorities may impose conditions which make the designer aware of these issues but they are too often seen as constraints and not as part of the conception of the scheme. Urban design courses, on the other hand, consider an area as a whole. Its structure, armature and public realm are designed first and, from these, ideas emerge for individual sites. These ideas could be seen as a constraint for the designer of a single building, or they could stimulate the imagination. Most of all, the connections between the whole and the parts need to be made explicit.
Architects wanting to move into urban design can bring useful skills to a course: thinking and communicating through drawing, and being creative. But interdisciplinary collaboration is not a strong attribute of most architects. The ability to understand others' points of view is especially important with masterplans where the issues involved go beyond those familiar to architects.
Urban design courses draw people from different backgrounds and the group-based projects encourage participants to collaborate and incorporate unfamiliar ideas.
Another aspect not always developed in the education of architects is understanding the character of an area beyond its purely visual components. Too often discussions are limited to elevational treatment, neglecting urban morphology, typology and the genius loci. Urban design courses begin with this and develop knowledge of urban components, their origin, raison d'être, historical evolution and impact on the contemporary city.
The content of urban design MA courses varies, but they have in common the study and design of the public realm based on the pedestrian experience, the production of frameworks, and a multidisciplinary approach. On completing a course, the urban designer should be aware of the viewpoints of the planner, the landscape architect and the engineer, as well as of the architect.
Most courses also foster an understanding of the community point of view. At the University of Westminster, for example, the course is split between project-based modules and those of a technical/ theoretical nature. Projects are based on real sites and vary in scale and scope; the technical/theory modules cover history, planning and development, and the relationship between society and space.
The delivery of urban design education is relative to employers' needs. The University of Westminster's postgraduate certificate in urban design (equivalent to three modules of the MA course) runs one day a month for a year, plus a 10-day block in Prague. The same course is offered on a fortnightly basis to the Kent Planning Officers' Group; it and the corresponding block takes place in Kent with projects based on local sites.
Not everyone needs an urban design qualification to work in the field. Various forms of CPD are on offer and the best ones involve hands-on workshops and various disciplines. CABE has set up the annual Urban Design Summer School, now in its third year. This four-day residential event, facilitated by the University of Westminster and attended by 100 people from various backgrounds and disciplines, is centred on two charettes; participants work in multidisciplinary teams to produce a brief for a real site. This is supplemented by a number of presentations and practical workshops. From the feedback available, architects benefit substantially from attending the summer school.
Finally, in-house short courses can be tailor-made to the needs of a specific organisation, whether a local authority planning department, a consultant or a professional group.
In the past 25 years, urban design has risen from a minority preoccupation to the top of the agenda for builtenvironment professionals. The availability of courses has not entirely caught up with demand, but there is a widening of what is on offer. The Urban Design Group ( www. udg. org. uk) is probably the best source of information for aspiring urban designers.