Teaching Urban Design

L: The 1791 L'Enfant plan for Washington DC; M: Barcelona after the Cerdà Eixample (Extension) of 1859; R: Le Corbusier inspects his 1951 plan for Chandigarh

If you’re reading this, chances are you are into cities or you are into design. Most likely, you think both are pretty interesting. But “urban” plus “design” does not necessarily equate to urban design, at least not as the term is understood in professional circles. Certainly, designers have helped to determine the physical form of cities throughout the history of human settlement, but in this country, a specific professional expertise or body of knowledge applied directly to the design of urban space has been a long time in coming.

The individuals we most commonly associate with the design of cities came from a variety of professional and educational backgrounds. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who oversaw the modernization of Paris in the 1850s and ’60s, was a lifelong civil servant, educated in law. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, responsible for the original design of Washington D.C., and Ildefons Cerdà, responsible for the 19th Century expansion of Barcelona, were civil engineers. Le Corbusier, Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the new capitals of Chandigarh, India and Brasilia, Brazil, were all trained as architects. And then, of course, are the countless designers of the streets, plazas, parks, campuses and interstitial spaces that are no less designed than the buildings of the city.

Some date the “birth” of the urban design discipline to a 1956 conference at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design organized by Josep Lluis Sert, or to the establishment of the first graduate degree programs in the subject that emerged at places like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania a few years later, or to the raft of seminal texts on the subject published in that period, including Chermayeff and Alexander’s Community and Privacy (1960), Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960), Mumford’s The City in History (1961), Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Cullen’s Townscape (1961), Spreiregen’s Urban Design (1965) and Bacon’s Design of Cities (1967).

In the five decades since, the period in which degrees in urban design have existed in American higher education, urban design qualifications have required students to have pre-existing professional degrees in architecture, landscape architecture or, to a lesser extent, urban planning. This year, Parsons The New School for Design is launching the nation’s first undergraduate degree in urban design, which prompted us to ask the program’s director, Victoria Marshall, what exactly is being taught and what exactly it means for the training of a new generation of urbanists with a different relationship to the urban realm than the designers that came before. Marshall says she is most interested in teaching “how to see the city as a designer” rather than, say, how to design the city or its spaces. And from the diverse coursework offered, the education the program provides is, indeed, much closer to an overview of urbanism — the history, the theory, the social science — mixed with fundamentals of design — section, plan, model, 2D layout — than it is to a foundation course in how to propose physical interventions to shape the constituent elements of urban space. With that in mind, there’s a chance a degree offering such as this just might respond to the tremendous civic interest in cities and how they work, especially on the part of young people less and less interested in the traditional disciplinary alignments of the 20th century.

L: The 2006 issue of Harvard Design Magazine celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Sert conference; M: First National Conference on Urban Design | 1978; R: This 1982 publication of the Institute for Urban Design listed all current degree programs


Urban Omnibus (UO):

How do you define urban design?

Victoria Marshall (VM):

I think I define it differently than how others tend to do so. I think of urban design in terms of comfort with multi-scalar thinking, the ability to link the big and the small, from large landscapes to small urban interventions.

I’ve done a lot of research with ecologists, working a lot to translate ecology theory into urban theory: how do we read cities as ecosystems? Whether I’m teaching a class on building a little garden or conducting a big studio looking at the Meadowlands as a site, these topics translate across scales.

Other definitions of urban design might link it more to urban planning – to the writing of reports or codes – or to the scenographic presentation of how an architectural project in an urban context might appear for the purposes of the real estate market, for example. For me, urban design is neither a subset nor a superset of other categories. I’m more interested to talk about what the work is than to define the discipline.

A Google image search for urban design yields a combination of architectural plans, streetscape renderings and skyline photographs
A Google image search for urban design yields a combination of architectural plans, streetscape renderings and skyline photographs

Tell me a little bit about your educational and professional background.


I studied landscape architecture as an undergraduate in Australia, where I’m from. In graduate school, I studied landscape architecture and urban design at the University of Pennsylvania. I have my own practice and have taught urban design for many years at all different institutions — Columbia, Harvard, University of Toronto, Pratt and Penn — and was exposed to many different types of graduate students. But my challenge here at Parsons is to teach urban design to undergraduates. Previous to this, urban design education at the undergraduate level hasn’t existed.


Did the desire to create an undergraduate urban design degree come from the institution or was it in response to student demand?


I’d say it’s institutional. The belief is that once we create the space, students will fill it.


What do you think someone who might want to declare urban design as her concentration is looking for?


We’re getting students who want the strong liberal arts component, but also want the design component, students who want a balance. They like the theory, they like the reading, they like the deep discussion, but they also like to make things and do things in class.


What kind of classes are offered?


On the history and theory side, we have “History of World Urbanism,” which digs into the history of cities since there was ever a city. There is another survey called “Urban Design since 1945.” And then there’s a lab sequence that students majoring in urban studies at Eugene Lang, the New School’s liberal arts college, can also access. That’s one of the reasons why the program was created. The New School is this amazing university, in New York City, with all these urban classes being taught to undergraduate and graduate students all across the university, from international affairs and urban policy at Milano, to design-specific classes at Parsons, to urban studies, environmental studies, the list goes on…

There’s also a core studio for urban design students, in which each student is given a complex problem on a complex site. Each has to do a lot of fieldwork, make a lot of drawings, talk to a lot of people. The studio teaches students how to research, how to do a pin-up, how to present and talk about their work.

Additionally, I taught a class called “Streetlife,” which was about exploring the street through drawing. Other classes are more about fieldwork: observation, taking notes, different ways of documenting a site photographically or otherwise. There’s also a class called “Sensing,” in which students build sensors, collect environmental data, do mapping and create their own aerial photography using balloons. They launch their own satellites and collect infrared data.


Is there a cohesive or canonical body of knowledge you want your students to graduate with? Do you think that exists yet in urban design? Is it emergent? Necessary?


Of course it’s necessary! “Urban Design since 1945,” as one example, looks at how all cities have changed in that period of time, which is also the period where the field of urban design emerged as a profession in this country. But we are careful not to place everything in an American context. Last year I had the opportunity to travel to China as a fellow of the India China Institute and more seriously study the way cities are being built now. If the students can have a sense of some of those dynamics in relation to all the work we’re doing in New York, then that’s a success for the program. Having a love for cities everywhere is key. Being interested in any city, anywhere a student might go, and being able to see it as a designer.


Do you see that interest and passion reflected in your students?



Image: Colin McFadyen

What kind of professional opportunities do you see this program preparing students for?


I‘m not sure yet. Some of the students have said to me they’ve chosen this because it’s the kind of solid foundation they want for their university education. Others, I think they might work for a non-profit, like a neighborhood group. Any of our students would be an amazing asset for such an organization. They’ll have a strong design toolbox and an ability to participate with people and to propose collaborative ideas.


Given the extent to which ecological thinking informs your approach to urban design, where does architecture figure into this?


Part of the ecological approach for me has to do with how you understand yourself in relation to your environment. I think the way that architecture comes in has to do with measure and specificity. How do you understand what are you measuring? How do you get very specific? Architectural measures include how you work with scale, how you draw a plan, how you draw a section, how you understand the relationship between drawings and the three-dimensional space, between material qualities and material behavior.


So architecture inserts itself as visual language and as a set of methodological tools?


Yes, perhaps. But a lot of it comes from testing different things out and figuring out as we go what I think the students should know. The balloon mapping project actually ends up teaching students how to hack a camera, and then how to stitch all that data together. This serves as one example of new types of technological ‘knowledges’ in which students need fluency these days. They’re learning how to hybridize that with how to draw a plan or how to build a physical model.

Balloon Mapping Project
Balloon Mapping Project |grassrootsmapping.org

So are the design skills students learn primarily in the service of analysis and representation? As opposed to proposing a design scheme?


No, you have to propose change. Even if I might, as a teacher, tend to move away from intervention, I will still require my students to design, say, a device that somehow transforms a condition.


What do you want your students to understand about cities and cities’ role in the world?


I’m very interested in cities as urban ecosystems. Our students start to become very sophisticated in navigating the rhetoric that gets produced around cities, but then, very strategic in ways that they can intervene or engage the city that is meaningful ecologically. For example, we had a discussion in class last week about things that are sustainable but not necessarily ecological. You can design a zero-waste shoe, or buy one, but does that kind of thinking actually change the way one acts in the world? The ecological approach is supposed to build a sustainable city, but we’re teaching them to approach it socially – and this harkens back to the social activist legacy of the New School – to approach it in terms of equality, difference, justice. If our students can perceive and communicate and strategically design how to engage and propose change, or allow the imagination of change to be engaged by others, I think that would be a success.

Victoria Marshall is an Assistant Professor of Urban Design at Parsons the New School for Design and the director of the BS Urban Design Program. She is a fellow of the India China Institute practicing landscape architect and the founder of TILL, a Newark based landscape architecture and urban design office which offers design services that transform contemporary landscapes such as reclaimed river beds, brownfields, rooftops and environmental justice neighborhoods.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Nana March 16, 2011

This approach to learning Urban Design at the Undergraduate Level is highly innovative. We are all participants of the ‘ECOSYSTEM’ of the city and the earlier we understand it, the better our response will be in its sustenance. Thanks for this article.

Nels Nelson March 17, 2011

Thanks for this interesting interview – I am developing the curriculum for a new class in the Urban Environmental Management program at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, called ‘Planning and Design of Urban Space’. Our program is a sub-department of Environmental Technology, so we see ourselves creating ecologies through adaptation of environmental technology in the complexity of urban systems. In this new class we are focusing on approaches, tools, and methodologies for designing urban spaces and then achieving that vision through mechanisms that manipulate the city – e.g. solar envelopes, quality programs, even spatial plans. It is an exciting time in this rapidly developing field.

madis pihlak March 19, 2011

I have taught a collaborative urban design studio at Penn State in the Stuckeman School for the past decade. For most of that time we focused on the climate positive development along the Toronto Waterfront. Urban design is ideal for developing globally sustainable urban environments.

Emily March 21, 2011

Oooh, this is great to read 🙂 However, I wish I could have someone clarify this part: “This year, Parsons The New School for Design is launching the nation’s first undergraduate degree in urban design”. Does NYU’s existing Urban Design (and Architecture Studies) programme not qualify? (http://arthistory.as.nyu.edu/page/urbandesign)

Anonimasu Yuan March 22, 2011

I’ve started an undergraduate planning degree this year in Australia. My university has been doing undergraduate planning since 2007. RMIT since 2004? Even Melbourne university used to do an undergraduate program. America’s behind the times.

Jake March 25, 2011

@Emily – No, it definitely doesn’t count. NYU simply conjoins the words “urban” and “design” into an undergraduate survey program. A true “Urban Design” program would be rooted in a studio program. That’s not to say NYU’s program isn’t excellent – just not in any way an Urban Design program.

@Anonimasu Yuan – You have to be kidding. This article isn’t about undergraduate planning. In fact, undergraduate planning degrees aren’t even mentioned. There are hundreds of those in the US. This is about Urban Design. The distinction could not be more important. Sorry, Anonimasu, I’m afraid it’s you who’s behind the times.

ML September 15, 2014

In Aalborg University, Denmark, an undergraduate course in Architecture and Design with a specialism of Urban Design has existed for over 10 years, with a highly innovative approach to cross-sector collaboration on an informed and rational basis. http://www.aod.aau.dk