Urban Design Graduate Study for Planners

Ann Forsyth's picture

Each year a lot of students ask me "how can I get a degree in urban design?" This is a very big question but in this blog I outline some key questions that those interested in urban design in planning need to consider.

The first question is the most important. What exactly do you mean by wanting to study urban design? Do you want to understand the area enough to be aware of major concepts and issues in urban design or do you want to have "urban designer" as your job title? You should read work by people like Jon Lang or Alex Krieger who have investigated the scope of urban design to decide. (And you can Google them but most of their work is only available in book and magazine form so you'll need to go to the library). The academic journals Urban Design International and the Journal of Urban Design are also good places to start. Places magazine can be a useful source as well.

he key issue is to determine if you are really interested in policy with a design angle or if you want to spend your days and nights actually drawing details of plazas. Perhaps you want to do something in between-maybe participatory work that considers design or work enhancing historic environments? Ask yourself if you are really just interested in the physical aspects of planning, something you can investigate with a mix of classes in land use, environmental planning, historic preservation, real estate, and urban design. Perhaps that isn't enough, and if so you may need a degree or a concentration in urban design.

If you are still an undergraduate I suggest getting a job and working for at least a year while you figure this out. You'll do lots better in grad school--with more experience, a better focus, and you'll likely get more money in scholarships too.

Once you've decided, the choices for graduate programs are quite varied to match the multiple motivations students might have for studying urban design. 

  • Many schools have an urban design specialty in planning. The ACSP guide lists literally scores of faculty with that specialization and many programs have two or more faculty with substantial expertise in the area: http://www.acsp.org/sites/default/files/2011_ACSP_Guide.pdf. The 2012 Planetizen guide lists over 40 planning programs claiming a specialty in urban design and five of these were highly rated by a "significant" number of respondents: Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Penn, and the University of Washington. However, a number of other institutions have substantial urban design expertise including interesting dual degrees, substantial outreach centers, and good links to practicing professionals. It is worth looking at the longer lists in the ACSP and Planetizen guides as they may better fit your interests in vernacular environments or sustainable design.

  • There are a few universities where you can do a degree labeled urban design (typically a MUD) without first having a degree in architecture or landscape architecture as a prerequisite. Examples of these kinds of degrees in North American schools that also have planning programs are at the University of Michigan, the University of Toronto, Ball State, Georgia Tech, and  the University of Colorado. These are typically two to three semesters and many are aimed at people who already have a masters degree. (And it would be a service to the profession if someone listed any other programs offering such a degree in the comments section below).

  • Many people who become urban designers JUST study landscape architecture (LA). Few LAs enroll in post-professional urban design programs (they are full of architects) because LAs learn urban design in their main degree. Of course landscape architects also need to learn to design gardens and do regional analyses so you would need to be prepared for that.

  • Of course some people do an architecture degree and then a post-professional urban design qualification. A number of urban design degrees are specifically targeted at architects. But that's a very time-consuming strategy. 

  • You might also look at related specialties-for example historic preservation planning, land use and physical planning, infrastructure planning, or real estate.

    Overall, the big question is what kind of urban designer do you want to be?

    This is my April blog a little late.


    Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



    Urban Design Program

    Columbia University offers a Master of Science in Architecture and Urban Design (MSAUD) distinct from its architecture and urban planning programs (but within the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation).

    Mark C. Walker, AICP
    Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc.

    urban design & planning

    Thank you for writing this post; I wish I had seen this 16 years ago! In 1996 I graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelors in Urban Studies, and desperately wanted to jump into the physical design of cities. I applied and was accepted to the MS Urban Design program at Pratt.

    Within a month it was clear that I should never have been accepted into that program. With no training in architectural design or drawing, I was completely out of my element: instructors would give us a design assignment, and while my studio-mates (all of whom were former architecture students) got busy coming up with bold, fantastical concepts, I'd be asking annoying questions like, "What's the budget? Who's the client? What's the current and projected demographic profile of this area?" When I saw our instructors respond encouragingly to the flights of fancy, and discouragingly to reality-based ideas, I knew it was time to leave.

    The relationship between planning, urban design, and architecture has changed a lot since then. But as I watch my wife finish her Masters of Architecture this month, I see that there are still fundamental differences in how the different disciplines perceive and envision the built environment. Planning students who are are considering graduate work in urban design would still do well to look carefully into the design philosophies of the programs they're considering.

    Planning and Urban Design

    Having spent the past 40 years back and forth between public and corporate planning and design and academic planning and design I found a certain frustration in finding Planners who could do physical city planning. This was not necessarily Urban Design which I tend to equate to urban architecture but rather the physical design of the built environment that involves urban design as well as environmental, economic, social, and political etc. considerations. While dean of the College of Environment and Design at Georgia (which has a very old, large and successful program in Landscape Architecture) I became the promoter and to a large extent "starter" of a Graduate Professional Degree Program in Environmental Planning and Design (MEPD). It includes full planning and design studios in every semester of the 58 credit hour program. We've even managed to retain all of the "core teaching faculty" with the requisite PhD's AND who had practiced at least 10 years in the profession. We are only in our third year but immediately filled to capacity and have more than the 25 graduates required to apply for accreditation next year. Obviously at this stage we find ourselves "tweaking" the program when we find shortcomings but creating a new program from the ground up allows for significant differences to be built in. Existing programs often find it hard to add courses such as studios (or more studios) because something else likely gets "reduced" or eliminated to create the academic space. We still are able to take students from many undergraduate areas as both hand and computer graphics as well as urban design principles are built into the first semester. To a degree the Planning and Design Program is modeled on the Landscape Architecture Program of Studio method, however with the academics focused on the larger scales and longer time frames. I add this to the excellent blog above only to point to a significant "middle ground" between the more policy driven planning programs and urban design. John F. (Jack) Crowley PhD, FAICP, FASLA, MEPD Program Coordinator John F. Crowley III


    I need to correct you most MUD programs, including U of Michigan are considered Post-Graduate/professional programs, and although a degree in ARCH is not required then will accept a BA in it, where they will not accept a BA in planning, in planning you must have a MA. I have looked at a lot of MUD programs, and one of the only ones that did not have that requirement was Lawrence Tech in Detroit, MI.
    Ball State says it is a post-professional degree, University of Toronto says;BA or MA in ARCH or LA, Georgia Tech; M.ARCH or B.ARCH, landscape architecture (BLA or MLA), City and Regional Planning (MCRP or equivalent), or Civil Engineering (BCE or equivalent. There are a few that will except a BA in planning, but they want you to have experience in the field, but you did not list them.
    I agree that you need to know exactly what you want to do and why you want the degree. I thought the program would teach me more nuts and bolts, but it was theortical, upon speaking with the Director of the program I decided that first I am not prepared for it and second that it might not fulfill what I want to accomplish, a MARCH or MLA would be better.

    Degrees in Urban Design

    As Ann Forsyth requests in her essay it's my pleasure to inform y'all that the School of Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte offers a 12-month, 3-semester Master of Urban Design (MUD) degree in the university's new Center City Building in downtown Charlotte.
    Our website is http://coaa.uncc.edu/Academics/School-of-architecture/Degrees/5-master-o...
    Most of our students come with architecture of landscape architecture backgrounds, but each year we accept two or three students from a planning background. Those students are required to take a design immersion summer semester in July prior to admission to the regular fall semester. Last year one of our most outstanding students was someone with a planning undergraduate degree who came to us specifically to learn urban design.

    David Walters RIBA, APA
    Architect and Town Planner
    Director, Master of Urban Design Program

    Urban Design at CCNY

    I studied city planning at Cornell for both undergrad and grad and felt that I needed some more Physical Planning and Urban Design skills upon graduating. I am currently beginning an Urban Design Masters at the City College of New York. It is the only public Urban Design degree in New York State (as far as I know). I just wanted to raise awareness about CCNY and the Urban Design program, which is led by Michael Sorkin. Thanks. - Peter Kelly Jenkins

    Urban Design in NYC

    Hi All,

    I received my Master in City & Regional Planning from Cornell in 2011 and wanted to gain more education and training in the realm of urban design. I applied to 5 programs across the country but settled on The City College of New York's program. It's studio course is taught by Michael Sorkin and being housed in the Spitzer School of Architecture, the only public school of architecture in NYC, the price is right as a New York State resident. Ultimately, the appeal of living in New York City, learning from Michael Sorkin all while paying in-state tuition made it a no brainer for me to matriculate into the 2012-2013 program. But for other urban planning students considering Urban Design I also applied to: UC-Denver, UNC-Charlotte, UM-Ann Arbor and GTech...I also know there are good programs at UT-Austin and Cleveland State University. All of these programs invite those with a professional degree in planning to apply. Hope this helps!

    -Peter Kelly Jenkins

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