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
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.
The 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
- 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
- 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.