In many ways, the master plan has lost its luster. Rather than a blueprint design studio, this class takes a workshop setting to explore the many ways urban designers can implement their work. This is a class on guidelines, tools and policies – the elements that shape our cities as much as brilliant visions do.


In our democratic society, we cannot shape the city by decree or a grand vision – no matter how brilliant. Contrary to architects, the transformative power of urban designers often does not lie in direct construction, but in guiding others to shape the urban environment in a certain manner. While at first sight a modest role, design guidance carries significant responsibility and power. Urban designers have various tools at their disposal to achieve their goals, often borrowing skills and agency from closely related professions. As a result, urban design is a typical profession of ‘generalists’ – fitting for those who can understand and control many separate processes at once. This class takes disciplinary ‘excursions’ to architecture, transportation design, historic preservation, real estate development and retail management to demonstrate the integrative power of the urban design profession.


Even the class itself is a mixture of various professional roles. Students start the semester as careful observers, analyzing the various elements that make up the urban environment – elements that urban designers can influence. In a studio-like setting, they systematically document the spatial and functional characteristics of urban building blocks, building types and street types to produce a typological guidebook of urban elements that can be used in future design projects. Shared documentation guidelines ensure that the results will provide comparable information on dimensions, space and function that can inform future analysis and design work.


In the second part of the semester, students take the more engaged role of discussants as we review the various tools that urban designers possess to shape the urban environment. Through a series of directed readings and case studies we investigate the purpose, benefits and pitfalls of design coding and review, historic preservation, transportation design, real estate design, and retail planning in the urban design process. Over the course of six weeks, we will discuss the theories and outcomes of these tools, augmented by a series of case study presentations. To connect our classroom experience to the field, a distinguished set of local experts in various professions will share their experiences with shaping the urban environment with students, demonstrating that urban form is not just the territory of the urban designer.


Finally, the course turns students into designers, as they apply the lessons learned in the previous two sections to produce an urban design implementation strategy for a defined urban design project.


Elements of urban design

Front cover of 2017 syllabus, depicting a drawing by Hugh Ferriss that exemplifies the formal power of policies.

Streetscape design guideline for autonomous vehicles, image by Nate Adams, Arindam Roy and Muhammad Rahman.

Elements front Streetscape