Urban Design: A literature review

Whilst a grad student, I learned that the opinions on what urban design is, vary greatly between planners, architects, and landscape architects. It’s only fair to admit that most urban designers in the United States today are trained as architects. Some of them might argue that urban design is essentially a large-scale architectural exercise, where architects not just design buildings, but also neighborhoods and cities as an ensemble of buildings, held together by public space and infrastructure. A planner, on the other hand, might say that urban design sits firmly in the planner’s domain, and that the endeavor is practiced through comprehensive planning, zoning and other regulations that deal with form, such as height restrictions, setback regulations, and design guidelines.

Part of the mystique surrounding urban design, is the fact that it isn’t a regulated profession. To become a planner, a landscape architect or an architect, you have to graduate from an accredited professional program at a college or a university. There are established professional associations for all three fields that determine which programs are accredited according to their evaluation of the curricula. Architects have the AIA, planners have the APA and landscape architects have the ASLA. Urban designers have no such association, and by consequence, there is no list of accredited programs in urban design. This leaves the field in a more nascent stage than other professions focusing on the built environment. It also allows anyone, anywhere to call themselves an urban designer (even though it is typically either an architect, landscape architect or a planner who does so). And whilst there are many universities in the US that offer programs in urban design, a quick look at their admission policies reveals a lot about their understanding of urban design. Take my own alma mater for instance, the Pratt Institute. Their masters degree in urban design is exclusively open to architects. And they’re not alone in this, many universities and colleges that offer a master’s degree in this field consider graduating from an accredited architecture program a prerequisite for admission. There are also schools where landscape architects and planners are also admissible to urban design programs. This, I believe, is more fair since urban design incorporates aspects from all three of the built-environment disciplines, whilst none of them covers all aspects of urban design. In that sense, one must truly reach across disciplinary boundaries if one wants to understand urban design.

Given the host of interpretations on what urban design is, who practices it, and what counts as the scope of the field, I decided that the best way to find answers to these questions was by reading up on the subject, since I didn’t have the time to conduct a survey of built-environment professionals on what urban design is (although that would potentially be a really great study). Now, almost three years after I began building my own library of urban design books, I’d like to share with you which books I found particularly helpful as I’ve attempted to organize my understanding of the field:

Perhaps not surprising, I found that the field of urban design is approached from a variety of perspectives. There are many ways to look at a profession, and urban design is no exception to that, as evidenced by the large number of books out there on urban design. This review is by no means a comprehensive review of the body of literature on urban design, rather, it is just a selection of books that I felt were the most relevant for the purpose of gaining a better understanding of urban design. Overall, I found that there are five different types of books on urban design. The books discussed all fall under one or more of these categories:

  • An overview of the field and scope of urban design
  • A review of spatial conditions and urban design concepts
  • An overview of urban design paradigms and types of urban design
  • An account of the (historic) development of cities and urban form
  • A discussion of the current state of urban design practice

Of course it might be possible to define more categories, but I’ve found these five to just about capture the varying nature of books about urban design. The first category mostly discusses theories of urban design (What is urban design? What do urban designers do? How is urban design practiced?); all the others discuss theories in urban design (the subject matter, the reservoir of knowledge drawn from in urban design). Below, I’ve positioned the nine books I’ve read into these five categories.

An overview of the field and scope of urban design

Urban Design by Alex Krieger et al

Urban Design by Alex Krieger et al

Urban Design by Alex Krieger, et al describes the development of the practice of urban design since the field’s contours were sketched out at a conference at Harvard University in the 1950s. It is mainly focused on the development of urban design practice in the Anglo-Saxon context, and includes accounts of the role various professionals (such as architects, developers, regulators and land use lawyers) have played in the emerging field. According to the authors, the emergent discipline of urban design is still very much done by architects, developers and land use lawyers; the true establishment of urban design as a separate profession is still very much pending. According to this book, a “… landmark conference at Harvard University established urban design as a distinct architectural and planning practice.” That didn’t resonate with me, the art of designing cities has been practiced for centuries, even though it might not always been consciously conceived as urban design. Still, the book provides insights into the development of the profession in recent decades, and takes a decent stab at defining the scope of the field.


Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products by Jon Lang

Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products by Jon Lang  is the most comprehensive account of the endeavor that is urban design that I’ve read. Lang presents a compelling discussion of what he calls the “core of urban design works,” which are described as the field’s “products.” These include Total Urban Design, which entails large-scale plans for new towns, neighborhoods, housing complexes, campuses, and large building complexes, and All-of-a-piece Urban Design, which entails the complete development of cities and neighborhoods in one fell swoop, and often under the same design regime. Think of Seaside, Florida or Battery Park City in Manhattan as examples. Yet another category is Piece-by-piece Urban Design; which consists primarily of incremental district development. New York’s Theater District is cited as an example of piece-by-piece urban design. The last category is “Plug-in Urban Design” which consists of (linear) elements that are introduced to the existing built environment, such as mass transportation lines, exhibition grounds, and city parks. Numerous case studies are presented to illustrate the various sorts of products each of these categories typically produce. It is definitely a helpful read if you’re interested in the range of urban design works that exist, and how urban design is practiced in (as we now know) four different ways. The book also provides a clear outline of the role each of the three disciplines (which it regards as being the core professions of the field) play in urban design. The argument is made that urban design, rather than being a distinct profession, is an activity that is the collective endeavor of urban planners, architects, and landscape architects. Each contribute to the endeavor with their own expertise, whilst neither “owns” it completely. To that notion, I subscribe.


The Urban Design Reader, edited by Matthew Carmona and Steve Tiesdell

The Urban Design Reader isn’t a book as much as it is a collection of essays and articles. Which is practical, since it allows the reader to dive in and read loose essays on very specific topics. Edited by Matthew Carmona and Steve Tiesdell, the book dissects urban design into six dimensions, which are in a way six aspects of urban design we need to consider if “good” urban design is to be reached (however arguable it may be to define “good” urban design). These dimensions are the morphological dimension, the perceptual dimension, the social dimension, the visual dimension, the functional dimension and the temporal dimension. Each of them is explored in around five essays. The book opens with a chapter on understanding urban design, and ends with a chapter on implementing urban design, making it a fair attempt of defining the scope of the field. I personally prefer reading a book written by one or just a few authors and appreciate singular theses that other authors have unfolded in their books, because there’s something about having an overarching narrative that makes it easier to digest a book.

An overview of spatial conditions and urban design concepts

The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary by Dhiru Tadani

The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary by Dhiru Tadani

The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary by Dhiru Tadani is a highly meticulous account of various spatial conditions. The book is an encyclopedia that discusses the applicability of various urban design concepts, and contains more than 500 subject matter entries. It also contains rich illustrations, maps, and photographs. Entries in the dictionary include “Edge City,” “Defensible Space,”  “Garden Elements,” “Plaza,” “Terminated Vista,” and “Water’s Edge.” At almost 800 pages, it is the ultimate coffee table book for urban design enthusiasts. It’s not as much a book you read cover-to-cover, as it is a reference that can be consulted for information on very specific design concepts.

An overview of urban design paradigms and types of urban design 

City Design: Modernist, Traditional, Green and Systems Perspectives by Jonathan Barnett

City Design: Modernist, Traditional, Green and Systems Perspectives by Jonathan Barnett

City Design: Modernist, Traditional, Green and Systems Perspectives by Jonathan Barnett is a short, 200 page introduction to the subject matter of the field of urban design. Numerous types of city design (as Barnett calls it) are presented. All schools of thought are discussed, focusing on Modernism, (neo) Traditional urban design (i.e., New Urbanism), Green urban design (in which Ian McHarg’s regionalism is discussed, as well as Garden City concepts and landscape urbanism) and systems perspectives (think Archigram). A more concise and contemporary overview than Designing Cities (see below), but containing less illuminating images. A good read if you’re new to the field and are curious about the various design paradigms that exist.

An account of the (historic) development of cities and urban form

Design of Cities by Edmund Bacon

Design of Cities by Edmund Bacon


Design of Cities by Edmund Bacon is an essential read for anyone who appreciates richly illustrated books. Using great graphics and maps, Bacon describes the urban design philosophy behind the urban forms that human civilization has produced since the dawn of western civilization and masterfully guides the reader along the history of urban design, from the growth of ancient Greek cities right up to the mid-century modernism of Stockholm. Bacon also presents his vision for his hometown of Philadelphia in this book, which allows us today to get a glimpse into the thinking of planners and designers in the 1970s. According to Alexander Garvin, Bacon had a greater impact on the planning and development of his hometown than any individual except Robert Moses in New York and Daniel Burnham in Chicago. Design of Cities is one of the most widely read books in urban design, and it probably is the single book on urban design I enjoyed reading the most.

X-Urbanism: Architecture and the American City by Mario Gandelsonas

X-Urbanism: Architecture and the American City by Mario Gandelsonas

X-Urbanism: Architecture and the American City by Mario Gandelsonas has two parts. The first is an overview of the spatial patterns of urbanization that have been characterizing American urbanism since the continent’s settlement by Europeans. The development of Savannah and Washington D.C. are used as examples of the historic application of urban design concepts on the clean slate that was North America. More recent spatial patterns, such as the surge in skyscrapers, suburbanization, and eventually ex-urbanization are discussed subsequently. The second part are all diagrams of seven American cities, in which Gandelsonas dissects the urban fabric of each, and calls out the spatial elements that have influenced the urban form of these cities. The first part is rather short, and slightly abstract, but it might not be the best account of the urbanism of the American city available. For that, see the next book below. It’s also a shame Gandelsonas speaks of “Architecture” instead of urban design, but name tags aside, he presents a richly illustrated account of the development of American cities in a way that certainly meets the standard that Bacon had set thirty years before him.

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore is, as the title suggests, a historically accurate account of the history and development of American urban form. In 9 chapters, the authors discuss how the urban form of American cities evolved in successive stages of the country’s history. The authors use a hypothetical city (inspired by Boston, New York and Philadelphia) to illustrate the development of American form. This city is presented as the “typical” American city and draws heavily from historical developments from the three real east coast cities. It’s the only book I’ve read that doesn’t illustrate the history of urban form using real-world cities, though I found their alternative very believable. The authors trace the evolution of this hypothetical city from its humble 17th-century beginnings up to the global city it is in the 2000s, making it pretty much your one-stop shop if you’re just setting out to learn about the history of urban form in America.

A discussion of the current state of urban design practice

Postmodern Urbanism by Nan Ellin

Postmodern Urbanism by Nan Ellin

In Postmodern Urbanism Nan Ellin provides an overview of the various paradigms or schools of urban design in the 20th century, particularly in the second half of the century. The paradigms are viewed in the context of the rapid change in societies’ political-economic framework. The conditions under which urban design emerges are explored, which provides insight in how tightly urban design is related to the political-economic framework of its host society. The book is unique since its emphasis is on the context in which urban design takes place, making it more “extrovert” than other books which study urban design in a more isolated way.

There are still some books left on my wish list. I still want to read Spiro Kostof’s The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. It’s also undeniable that the law of diminishing returns applied when I made my way through the above-mentioned books. One won’t gain as many new insights after reading the 9th book on urban design, as one may from reading the first. That wasn’t a big issue for me, as I’ve found it interesting to study various author’s perception of urban design, rather than studying the subject matter itself. What I learned from the books I’ve read, and especially from Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products, is that the field of urban design is not as much a profession of its own as it is a collective endeavor, to which all disciplines concerned with the built environment contribute in their own way.

Lastly, you might notice that I’ve left some well-known books out of my review. Some of the most influential writings on urban design come from exclusive ideologies. I’m referring to Suburban Nation by New Urbanism’s opinion leader Andres Duany, The Landscape Urbanism Reader by Charles Waldheim, or The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning by Le Corbusier and Garden Cities of To-Morrow by Ebenezer Howard. These texts, which are probably included in the curricula of most urban planning and design programs, are perhaps the most widely read text on the subject. They are perhaps not as much in need of a review as the more recent books that are listed above, as most people with an interest in the built environment have probably read them at some point. The authors of these texts also have a strong preference for one kind of design over all others. I think that treating urban design ideas as exclusive ideas is a mistake, and has led to unfortunate conflicts in urban design: people who are in favor of the New Urbanism are annoyed with the ideas of Le Corbusier, and the other way around. Urban Design isn’t waiting on people to anoint one correct design philosophy, whilst others are consigned to oblivion. All urban design paradigms, whether traditional, garden city, or modern, are significant. Urban designers may need to draw from all ideologies, depending on the situation. Improving cities is difficult enough already without taking sides. The books included in this review mostly discuss all schools of thought from an unbiased perspective, which is why I believe that they are a good starting point for anyone interested in studying the field.

Have any favorite books on urban design of your own? Think I should have included other books in this review? Please let us know via the comments!

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3 Comments on “Urban Design: A literature review”

  1. jaxnemesis October 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    Hi Ronald

    what a great little overview you have here of Urban Design, pointing particularly to the issue of there being no Professional Associations, or peak bodies that represent (along with endorse and advocate) the work of the Urban Designer. Without this, the profession can be seen as less significant than the associated trilogy that you make mention of, namely Architects, Landscape Architects or Planners, and you are right – everyone can call themselves an urban designer, even if they are merely interested in the use of public space.

    Here in Australia it is not dissimilar. In the research that I’ve undertaken, we seem to only have PIA (Planning Institute of Australia). They are brilliant, and a fantastic peak body, but alas, skewed toward that of the Planner (as you can tell – the clue’s in the title).

    In the UK however, there is a little group called The Urban Design Group which has a process for accreditation so that one may be able to be a ‘Recognised Practitioner’. Here is – the inevitable – link: http://www.udg.org.uk/join/recognisedpractitioner

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

    All the best, Jill.


  2. jaxnemesis October 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Innocent Bikestander and commented:
    A great little overview of some of the literature in Urban Design. Sure, it’s not biking related but, as we know, if you get the design right, people will feel invited to bike and walk. Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Design and Traffic Engineering have to work as the most intimate army ever for this to work well.


  3. Syed S. Ahmed October 18, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

    An excellent piece. I am going to order Design of Cities. Thanks Ron.


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