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Thread: Urban design in urban planning jobs

  1. #1
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    Urban design in urban planning jobs

    Hi!

    My name's Michelle. I'm a Public Affairs/Urban Planning masters student at UW-Madison, and I'm curious as to how urban design figures into different planning jobs. I'm still getting my head around the concept, as I've only really explored housing and transportation issues up until now. Do planners need urban design knowledge to review site plans, or do they end up doing many designs of their own? Do private sector employers tend to seek planners with urban design experience more so than government agencies? I'm trying to figure out if I should take any urban design studio courses, so I'd appreciate any info you might have.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    You don't need to have a background in urban design to do site plan review, but it does help. Governments, whether municipal, regional, state, etc. might contract out urban design services to a consulting firm if they do not have the manpower themselves, but the same can be said for any type of planning service. In the private sector, I have done both review and design.

    I think one of the reasons why design work is more likely to be found in the private sector is because planners dont have the same level of technical skill to do site plan design as would a landscape architect, architect, engineer, or surveyor. You will find more designers within public sector jobs within communities/regions that are either very large or expriencing enough rapid growth to keep these people gainfully employed. One of my first planning internships was with a park district that employed park designers full time (granted, all of these designers were landscape architects).

    As a former architecture student, the construction and design studios that I took were extremely difficult and were nothing like the more conceptual, though equally important, urban design work done when I was an urban planning majors.

    I am curious as to what you plan to accomplish in urban design. "Urban design" is a very broad area of planning and I am curious as to what you plan to accomplish as a planner.

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    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post
    You don't need to have a background in urban design to do site plan review, but it does help. Governments, whether municipal, regional, state, etc. might contract out urban design services to a consulting firm if they do not have the manpower themselves, but the same can be said for any type of planning service.
    From what I've experienced local governments rarely use consultants for site plan review, as in the formal process of reviewing private sector development proposals. Government planners are trained to apply the existing regulations and are not expected to redesign projects (which would be legally questionable as well). The only places where I could see municipalities using outside consultants would be larger cities where urban design is political in itself (i.e. S.F., Boston, NYC, Chicago). Most local governments don't care enough about their built environment to justify spending money for design consultants and the majority aren't worth it anyway (dark-siders: sorry but I couldn't resist the cheap shot ).

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    From what I've experienced local governments rarely use consultants for site plan review, as in the formal process of reviewing private sector development proposals. Government planners are trained to apply the existing regulations and are not expected to redesign projects (which would be legally questionable as well). The only places where I could see municipalities using outside consultants would be larger cities where urban design is political in itself (i.e. S.F., Boston, NYC, Chicago). Most local governments don't care enough about their built environment to justify spending money for design consultants and the majority aren't worth it anyway (dark-siders: sorry but I couldn't resist the cheap shot ).
    Maybe I am the black sheep, I dunno. I have worked for communities where we have done urban design work and at the same time do site, landscape, and architectural review within the same communitity for projects that are being designed by other consultants. I know a bunch of small rural communities who outsource ALL of their planning and engineering needs to consulting groups because it is far cheaper than hiring additional staff. I agree that municipal budgets do not allow the icing on the cake to hire outside staff. Seems like you have been scarred by us private sector geeks

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    Thanks to everyone for your info!

    To nrschmid: While I was an undergrad, I did a summer internship at a Smart Growth planning organization in New York. This groupís main function was to organize charettes for local communities and facilitate the discussion and overall planning process. At these events, they worked with a group of architects that would draw site plans and designs for some of the ideas the participants came up with. When charettes werenít going on, they would do advocacy and policy development work.

    This is more or less the sort of work I want to do in the future. Iím most interested in big picture stuff, especially transportation and land use policy, but would be interested in any kind of Smart Growth consulting and advocacy work. Iím wondering if Iíd be more likely to get a job in this area if I had some urban design studio experience while in school, or if itís something I could learn on the job if I needed it.

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Zoidberg View post
    Thanks to everyone for your info!

    To nrschmid: At these events, they worked with a group of architects that would draw site plans and designs for some of the ideas the participants came up with. When charettes werenít going on, they would do advocacy and policy development work.
    This is more or less the sort of work I want to do in the future. Iím most interested in big picture stuff, especially transportation and land use policy, but would be interested in any kind of Smart Growth consulting and advocacy work. Iím wondering if Iíd be more likely to get a job in this area if I had some urban design studio experience while in school, or if itís something I could learn on the job if I needed it.
    It sounds to me like your firm either had an in-house architecture team, or subcontracted the architect as a part of the charette process. Since you are more interested in policy and advocacy work, I don't think an urban-design studio is necessarily a requirement to do the type of work you want (it's not a detriment either).

    What exactly did the architects do this process. Were they facilitating the meetings or were they behind the scenes, taking directions from the planners? I have worked on charettes within the private sector where designers play different roles.

    1. Planners facilitate the charettes and draw sketches on trash or bond paper using pencils and markers. These images are then brought back into the office and converted into a digital format, usually AutoCAD or PhotoShop. Either the planner will do this digitizing or it might be handed to a draftsman, with more advanced technical experience. I have been fortunate to do both. I think I am one of the few planners who has computer drafting skills (CAD and PhotoShop) in addition to the more typical computer background in GIS).

    2. Planners facilitate the charettes, the in-house architect/landscape architect staff will draw the sketches and convert the sketches into a digital format. This might be more common when the planner does not have the technical expertise himself.

    3. Planners facilitate the charettes, the architect/landscape architect subconsultants will draw the skethes and work with the planner to convert the sketches into a digital format. This might happen when the public sector planners do not have architects/landscape architects on staff to provide the concept design backgrounds. This can also happen within the private sector if the planner is in a consulting firm that does not do conceptual design work, so they outsource or subcontract those tasks to a different firm.

    4. Architects and Landscape Architects do all of the facilitating and graphics preparation. This is becoming more and more common since these professions are taking on more planning related tasks.

    Bottom line, when it comes to design, I think you want to do more policy and community planning. Rather than dive right into design, you are wading at the other end of the pool. If you are serious about design you need to (1) know how to draw (communicate graphics effectively in various scenarios, whether it be sketching, rendering, or preparing graphics) (2) sharpen your AutoCAD skills. Some of my colleagues might stress GIS with design. Most of my experience in lot design/trail design/open space design stem from experience working in AutoCAD (I also stree AutoCAD, which is an AutoDesk CAD system, as opposed to Microstation, which is the CAD system favored by Engineers).

    Hope this helps.

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    Thanks again for the advice. I think urban design is something I'd like to learn about regardless, but this has helped me prioritize it in comparison with my other studies.

    The situation with the advocacy group I worked with was closest to number 3, with the designers translating the stakeholders' ideas into site plans and images.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    I'd love to have someone with the design skills you talk about in our office. Few of the consultants in our region are able to host the kind of charette you describe, at least without subcontracting with an architectural firm to do the drawing. Being able to do it would be a leg up on the competition. There are many other instances where I could use good drawing/design skills in plans.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  9. #9
    Why would planners be comming up with the ideas for the arch/l.arch's to sketch and draft? I thought those designers would be coming up with the ideas themselves, no?

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by aquablue View post
    Why would planners be comming up with the ideas for the arch/l.arch's to sketch and draft? I thought those designers would be coming up with the ideas themselves, no?
    Most planners think of the much larger picture when it comes to the design. Plus, there are so many types of planning that really don't cover design. They might be doing site impact plans rather than the site plan. Both types of graphics are important. Find books on planning graphics (no, this is not GIS). Planning graphics are books showing hand drawn and rendered graphics for site impact plans, transportation impact plans, SWOT analysis, etc.

    I think architects/landscape architects are trained to more of the specifics in design, that's all. As an urban designer, I do lot design to determine, conceptually, where the lots will go on in a development, where the bike trails will go, the ROW lines. If I had more training in landscape architecture, I could determine where the shrubs, prairie grasses, and canopy trees would go. An architect might figure out how to create the foundation of a model home on the slope of a site. The PE would verify if the ROW and roads within the ROW are feasible. The wetland scientist would determine the impact of the wetlands and recommend any kind of natural plantings.

    A friend of mine who is a practicing landscape architect also told me "not everyone can draw". If you can be able to convey your design ideas conceptually in a client (this can either be prepared ahead of time using CAD or photoshop) or conceptually by hand-drawing conceptual graphics on trash as you speak, this is going to create a lasting impression on the client.

    If you want to go to school which an emphasis on design I would recommend the following grad schools: University of California at San Luis Obispo, the Ohio State University, University of Michigan, Iowa State University, Auburn University, etc. ACSP (Association for Collegiate Schools in Planning) has a marvellous guide to undergrad, masters, and doctor programs for all certified planning schools in the US, Canada, Austrailia, and Israel. Each program also has specialities in planning. Planetizen also has a 2007 guide to planning schools. I wish I would have read it before going for my undergrad in planning. Michigan even has two different tracks: a combination Masters of Planning/Masters in Urban Design and a combination Masters in Planning and Masters in LA. I would recommend the latter, which will give me a greater breadth in design issues.

  11. #11
    So, it is a better choice to do L.A w/ planning rather than planning/urban design if you are interested in urban design?

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    If you are really interested in site design, I recommend landscape architecture. Urban design will get most of your concepts on paper but LA is a more technical field, and will give you greater breadth in design concepts. If you focus in both planning and LA, I would recommend you focus the planning part either in land use planning (zoning ordinances, comp plans, code enforement, etc.) or in urban design.

    I have talked to a lot of planners and planning students and many of them would love to do design work, but they beat around the bush when it comes to sitting down and doing actual design work. Many of them have told me "that's up to the engineer to figure out" or "I'm not that creative".

    If you want to do design and be successful as a designer, I think it's going to require more than just a class here or there in design. You have to dive right into it, get your feet wet and see if you are passionate about it. Like GIS or economic development, physical site planning (whether it be in urban design or landscape architecture) is a speciality and has its own path to follow as well.

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    UW Madison

    Hi Michelle,

    I am also currently looking into urban design and deciding whether the URPL program at UW Madison or a LA degree would be better for my long-term goals. I live in Madison too. If you have any ideas or want to share information (I know someone at the City of Madison who is interested in urban design) let me know. My email is ksrappe@gmail.com

    -Kirk

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    Hi Kirk,

    My sister is currently studying Landscape Architecture at the University of West Virginia and is really skilled at it. I get to hear about whatís sheís doing during school breaks, and so far sheís taken a course in AutoCad and some graphic design skills, and has done a few projects related to park and public space planning. It also sounds like a number of her classes focus on the characteristics of certain plants and how they work in different environments, which is an important thing to consider in terms of your academic interests. (I took a walk in a park with her over winter break, and she was able to rattle off the names of just about every plant we passed.) I know that for me, all the Auto Cad and graphic design stuff is really fun, but I donít have a desire to focus on the botanical stuff in that much detail.

    Madison offers a dual degree in URPL/Landscape Architecture, though Iím not sure how the core requirements are balanced between the two degrees and how many opportunities you would have to take electives specific to your interests. Iím aware of three design related courses off the top of my head (Open Space Planning and Design, Housing and Urban Design, and Regional Design). Madisonís URPL program seems to be predominantly planning-related and doesnít appear to offer specific courses on design issues other that Site Planning. Hopefully this will help.

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    Cyburbian
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    I havent looked too much into Madison's program. However, I glanced over the guide to undergraduate and graduate planning programs published by the Association for Collegiate Schools in Planning at

    http://www.acsp.org/Guide/ACSP_Guide_2006.pdf

    The manual did not mention urban design or physcial/site planning as a speciality, so there probably is not an emphasis of design in that program. You will need to verify this when visiting the school and speaking with faculty and students (I can be dead wrong).

    At a bare minimum, for plant material you will need to be able to identify woody plantings by common name, scientific name (genus and species), general plant characteristics, and common pests. The requirements will vary from one program to another. You will also have to be able to identify plant material in the environment, in the spring, summer, winter, and fall. This is done by a process called keying where you look for characteristics of a plant (remember the old-school Choose Your Own Adventure) it's pretty much like that. In the winter, you might be outside for hours, no matter how cold it is, identifying trees (and the only way you can do this is by looking at twigs, catkins, samarras, acorns, fruit, etc. I think you should be able to identify about 100 or so species of trees, shrubs, etc. You will learn even more specializations such as varieties of species when you are working as a landscape architect. This is more of construction issue, and varieties of one species, which is produced by one nursery, might have different characteristics than the variety of the same species produced in a different industry.

    Sounds pretty demanding and it is. You need to know your plant material if you are considering landscape architecture. Why is this? Well, you don't want to plant the wrong material in an environment for a client, and from doing landscape review, some communities prohibit species within public spaces (right of ways, bufferyards, etc.). For instance, you don't want to plant a female Gingko bilobia (Ginkgo tree) becuase they STINK, Juglans ***** (Black walnut) stains the skin, Betula ***** (River birch) shreds an orange paperty bark which leaves a mess. Unfortunately, almost all Fraxinus spp. (Ash trees) cannot be installed due to the threat of the Emerald Ash Borer (at least in the midwest). Communities might prohibit plant material based on the appearance, ability to maintain the plant, salt-tolerance, maintainance, hardiness, etc.

    Another thing I have learned is that landscape architecture students in Track 1 graduate programs (students who don't have a bachelors in landscape architecture) come from many backgrounds. One of the most common non-LA bachelors I have seen is Ornamental Horticulture, and LA students who have this background are going to be far more knowledgeable when it comes to plant materials. I have also worked with ecologists/wetland scientists who work with native plantings instead of woody plantings). So bottom line, you need to know plant material.

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    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Get this topic back on track

    To get this topic back on track, the landscape architecture to help with urban design skills is a good call. I work in a multi-disciplinary firm that features planning, la, arch, and engineering. My college school took the form of both site planning /urban design and strait planning principles and policy in a more lab oriented setting (Graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo). In three years of working in the "dark side" for mostly public projects (i.e. my clients tend to be cities and counties) i have found that creating better designs and planning for the future growth of these communities has been through a combination of both good urban design and the knowledge of good planning policy. The more you know about urban design, the better you can implement and change regulations such as zoning codes to have a better planning result (i.e. the knowledge of urban design can help you better understand the inadequacy of a zoning code to better implement new urbansim within a community). I think this helps me sleep better at night knowing this! Good Luck

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    casual learning

    Is there anything you'd recommend to people who want to learn about urban design in a more casual way (besides independent reading)? When I say "casual," I mean not in a structured university degree program. Did any of you urban designers or planners interested in urban design find you learned a lot through an online class, by attending conferences, or by talking to people where you work?

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showt...219#post369219

    You can always learn by reading books on planning design. Oh yeah, I left out Rural by Design or any books by Randall Arendt. I learned the basics through some workshops in college. Because I took site planning much more seriously, I just taught myself the main priniciples and practiced. I did a PUD design I hand drafted in college and am now converting it into CAD which will then be converted into Sketchup (as part of my design portfolio).

    The landscape is a living breathing organism. Just as you can't learn medicine from a book, site planning requires alot of direct observation and practice to be an effective site planner. Unfortunately, there aren't many one-stop shops to just learn the basics of site planning in one day. As a site planner, you are always learning different ways to design sites, even after the project has been completed. My job offers opportunities to do physical site design which is one of the big reasons I turned down a higher paying job just doing code compliance. So I guess I was in the right place at the right time.

    I recommend you start looking for a neighborhood/community design charette. I think I had mentioned that in a post earlier. This will give you a rudimentry intro into site planning. Some community colleges might offer a site design class through their landscape design program. You would need to check.

    Hope this helps-

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