It’s Time for a New Approach to Urban Design Education


This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)

For the first time in history, the majority of the earth’s population live in cities. In fact, it is widely predicted that by 2050 at least 70% of the global population will be urban. Cities may not have been our past, but they certainly are our present, and our future. And yes, if you’ve made it as far as This Big City, the content of this paragraph should come as no surprise.

Continuing with the unsurprising statements, unparalleled global urbanisation brings many challenges. How can our cities be designed to accommodate more people? Should the built environment grow vertically, horizontally, or some kind of combination of the two? Will current transport infrastructure cope? The demands of our cities are changing, and more of the same is simply not an option. Luckily for us, this period of contemplation has come at a good time – despite currently being home to just over 50% of the global population, cities are responsible for around 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. With further urbanisation expected in the coming decades, this could suggest an unsustainable future. However, cities actually have the potential to be more sustainable than the countryside, a potential they have, admittedly, yet to achieve.

The theory of urban sustainability is based on economies of scale brought about by density. When people and the services they require are packed together more closely, they use less energy. Live in a flat and you get free heat from your neighbours above and below. Construct a multi-storey housing development and you don’t have to extend underground infrastructure as far. Use a city’s public transport and you can save money and reduce emissions as you no longer need a car. And best yet, when people move to the city, the countryside can get back to doing what it does best – providing a natural habitat for the millions of species we often forget we need to share the planet with.

Yet sustainable urbanism doesn’t just happen, it needs to be encouraged through the design of our cities. And though formal education isn’t a critical component of being a good urban designer, it is the path that many people follow before entering the profession. So as our cities and planet experience unprecedented change, how are universities responding with their urban design education options? Are we seeing an influx of new courses that proactively address the transformation of our cities? Are existing courses radically altering their teaching to prepare students for the difficult task of creating sustainable cities? Er, no.

In fact, whilst more of the same is the last thing our cities are promising us, more of the same is exactly what we’re getting in universities. Into decorating? That’s Interior Design. Want to design buildings? That’s Architecture. Cities? That’s Urban Planning. Green space? That’s Landscape Architecture. Though the reality of each of these professions involves frequent cross-disciplinary work, collaboration between built environment courses is not the norm.

Cities are man made creations, but they function like an ecosystem. A skyscraper changes more than the skyline. A road brings more than transport alternatives. A community garden contributes more than just a bunch carrots. Developing a better understanding of the interconnected nature of urban environments allows us to design cities that are more efficient, more liveable, and more sustainable. With the global population increasing and urbanising rapidly, the need for this understanding has never been greater, as has the need for a new generation of urban designers that truly understand how our cities work, and how we can make them better. It is therefore critical that cross-disciplinary collaboration becomes a standard part of any course which focuses on the built environment, challenging our specialism-obsession.

Sustainability can no longer simply be more of the same with ‘green’ materials, it must begin to truly question the unsustainable systems our buildings and cities exist within. It’s time colleges and universities started thinking a bit differently about how they approach education and the built environment.

A version of this article originally appeared in Emerging Students – a magazine covering university culture with a global perspective. Image courtesy of Marcin Wichary on flickr

  • Amber The Cardboard Collective


    Great insights into looking at our city design problems. As a big city dweller who started life as a farm girl, I find that city dwellers face a lot of micro design issues in their daily lives, but little space for tools and materials and few skills and support for tackling them. I believe that we cannot always turn to policy, consumerism and experts to adequately solve the sustainability issues we face on a day to day basis living in cities. While formal education and the development of experts in the field is one solution to helping cities grow more sustainable, I myself am skeptical of seeing this as a main approach.

    As a stay at home mother, I find that women in particularly are making a lot of decisions in their homes that affect how sustainable their communities are. I also find that the retired individuals in the community, as well as the youth, are those with the ability to provide the labor and support to make sustainable changes in urban communities. These groups do not connect, communicate, or exchange frequently with urban planners and policy makers. Instead of bringing more experts into our cities, I believe that we should harness the talent and ingenuity of the change makers who are already living in our cities and are knowledgeable about the specific problems that their communities face.

    Why not provide more opportunity for informal education and social networking within these communities and help them grow more aware of the tools, materials and resources that are available to them? Today’s internet tools provide us with those opportunities in a way they haven’t in the past.
    Just like the farm I grew up on, cities have nutrient cycles – both organic and man made. Right now many of these urban nutrient cycles are broken and we deal with issues related to transporting and disposing of waste, and organic nutrients that are under utilized.

    When are we going to close the loop? And will more experts really help us?

    I blog at

    • Joe Peach

      Thanks Amber. I too am a country guy gone urban, and I spend a lot of time perplexed by how city folk behave! It’s very true that there is a whole side to urban communities that don’t ship themselves off to work – life remains in an area even with half the residents gone. 

  • Howard Freeman

    I appreciate this article a great deal, as someone born and raised in “center city” New York.

    In addition to the disciplines mentioned above — which you rightly point out can and should work in a cross-disciplinary fashion — I’d include the discipline of “placemaking.”  Christopher Alexander’s emphasis on creating “positive urban space” — the notion that places are where people in cities interact and co-create, etc., and are therefore primary to design — is arguably a reason to prioritize this above some of the other disciplines.

    If cities are about people — which is increasingly true by the numbers alone — then cities must think about design in terms of where people spend most of their time, which is in various “places” about town.

    • Joe Peach

      Thanks Howard. I agree with you on the placemaking thing. It definitely seems that cities are becoming places for people as much as they are places for business. It’s a change I’m enjoying living through.

      • Howard Freeman

         Jane Jacobs argues quite persuasively that many innovations – even organized agriculture! – came from city dwellers.  So cities have always been places for people, though the car age drove (no pun intended) people away to the suburbs.

        I personally think each of us comes alive in a city.

  • Nicolpiper

    Hello Joe,

    I am studiing Landscape Architecture and I have to choose alternative course like Urban planning. I want to ask you about job experiences: Is it easy to find job in this area, or there enough urban planner and people don’t need any professional? If i go abroad (New York, London) councils will accept my diploma, or they will prefer inland experts when i am looking for a place to be an intern there.
    I am so puzzled about what I want to choose, because I know there are lot of landscape Architect, but I don’t know what about the Urban Planners, where are the working? I would love to make cities better with my work, but I would also planning green roofs. I hope this two thing somehow connected to each other…
    Thank you for your article! 😀


    • Joe Peach

      Hi Niki. The real answer is ‘it depends’. Plenty of people I studied with have struggled to gets jobs in Planning in the UK so it definitely isn’t easy. In fact, planning is an area the UK government are keen to cut costs in so it definitely shouldn’t be something you study purely with a view to looking for employment. If you love it – do it! Outside of the UK I really can’t say as I don’t have first hand experience of those areas. Hope this helps!

  • Chezi25t

    Amazing article

  • EDP

    Some universities have already made this adjustment. UCL now offers a MSc Sustainable Urbanism (of which I’m a student), which admits students from many professional backgrounds and where we work on interdisciplinary projects and design problems. In my course we have students from economics, landscape architecture, planning, business, geography, and other backgrounds, and it’s been great to have a class where lots of different opinions and ideas can come together with a study body drawn from all around the world. The UCL Bartlett School has other new, interdisciplinary programmes such as Mega Infrastructure Planning, International Real Estate & Planning, Urban Regeneration, and Planning, Design & Development that are all quite ‘cross-boundary’.