Fundamental Urban Design Principles Relevancy Cultural Studies Essay

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The term 'Urban Design' broadly tries to be understood as making places for people, or more simply put "designing people-places within city-spaces". Being an inherently ambiguous term, different types of people tend to use it differently for various circumstances. But the two words when taken separately have clear meanings; 'urban' suggesting the city or town characteristic and 'design' referring to the planning or arrangement part. But on further study, we tend to understand that the term 'urban design' really is a process. A process focused on planning to make better places for people. With this statement, we tend to realize the importance of the other underlining factors involved, like firstly how urban design is for and about the people, its sense of value and special significance, constrains of economical and political forces and the fact that all this is undergone as a process.

Coined in North America in the late 1950s, the term urban design was used to in order to explain the design of major civic buildings and their relationship to the open spaces within the city. However, the steady increase of academics and professionals in this subject generally tend to understand urban design to be a little more than just an aesthetic arrangement of people spaces within a city. It has a more wide and inclusive meaning of solving effective problems of city growth and also organising the development within those quarters. In the pressing need for a clearer definition of urban design, Madanipour identifies and explains the seven areas of ambiguity in his book 'The Design of Urban space'. He addresses the scale factor of the urban fabric, the visual emphasis, the social emphasis, the relationship between the process and product in the city design, the relationship between different professionals and their activities, affiliation of the public and private sectors and finally the design as an expressive or subjective process. This wide variety of ambiguities explains the lack of clarity in its definition. So as a conclusion, he defines "urban design as the multidisciplinary activity of shaping and managing urban environments, interested in both the process of this shaping and the spaces it helps shape. Combining technical, social and expressive concerns, urban designers use both visual and verbal means of communication, and engage in all scales of the urban socio-spatial continuum."(Carmona,M.2003)

Urban Design had theories which improved over time to form a basic structure of principles which became the core principles for any urban designer to go through before simply jumping in to the designing aspect. Different key urban designers wrote books and set standards according to the principles and theories formed. The British Urban scenario ironically began with His Highness the Prince of Wales who collaborated with others to bring about an awareness of sorts. The responsive environment book was a design manual for urban designers (published in 1985), with a compilation of several American and British theories which formed the first draft of urban design principles in a way. Although this book was mainly meant for the techniques in designs, it's based on some theory as well. Most of the urban design approaches relating to the visual aspects are influences from the European style and mainly the British; on the other hand the American style was rather more in understanding the social aspects and regarded to the workability of that design. Gradually with the townscape tradition from Krier, L and the government's advice for broader view, the British practice became more space oriented. But still the practice retains a very strong visual tradition, especially in development control in planning. The principles were then revised again in 1990 by Bentley to strike a balance between the various previous factors and the present new ones. Then later by 2000, with collaborated effort released the Urban Design Compendium which also was an essential guideline tool for urban designers.

The main urban design principles are:

1) Robustness is the quality which describes the degree to which people can use a given place for different purposes. It's in context to the quality of the public realm, which is the place for people to gather. Hence, to create an environment where everyone can access and benefit from the full range of opportunities available to the members of the society.

2) Permeability is the quality which affects the mobility of the people within the urban tissue .Its mainly about making connections in order to ease the movement. A good design would integrate the existing urban form, the natural and the built environments.

3) Legibility explains the quality that affects how easily people can understand and relate to the surrounding environment. The design focus would be to address the connections between people and places by considering the activities of people to access public spaces, recreational areas and to socialise.

4) Variety, termed for the range of uses, tenure, character, population available with the urban quarter. Also describes more of the mixed uses or the diversity of uses and forms. The design criteria would work at addressing the connections between people and places by considering the need of the people to access jobs and key services.

5) Visual appropriateness describes the quality of appearance/ aesthetics of a place making people aware of the choices available.

6) Cleanliness which is to make sure to minimise pollution or to be self cleansing.

7) Bio-diversity which is to preserve and protect the present wild-life corridor and use natural management.

8) Energy Efficient, which is to make sure to keep a tab on the energy consumption within a house, building or on a city scale.

9) Richness is the quality that affects the people's choice of the sensory experiences.

10) Community control relating to the individuality of the neighbour community of the people. This was added instead of the Personalisation principle.

By elaborating some of these principles we can easily understand how they deserve to be fundamental urban design principles.


This quality brings an element to a certain place that can be used for many different purposes, thereby offering their users more choice than places whose design limits them to a single fixed use. Robustness actually has an initial glitch to its theory, regarding the fact that most people would not opt for this quality of urban design considering the fact that at the end of the day, they are the ones paying the rent and maintaining them. Since designers have to respect the clients wishes, robustness does in fact work wonders at a large scale. When it comes down to the outdoor spaces, private garden spaces, public outdoor spaces etc, robustness can bring about its usefulness to the society. Designing the edge of the public square can make informal/seasonal market spaces.

Examples, Cardiff city park, right opposite to the city hall, experiences seasonal changes in its usage. The simple park turns in to an ice skating rink for the winter for the society to make the best of the festive season.

Another example is the woonerf concept, applied in Utrecht, Netherlands. Or in the British context, the home zone concept for a neighbourhood area. This robustness really encourages more social interactions and safety priorities for the children play area etc unlike other neighbourhoods.


The term permeability is basically defined as the number of alternative ways through an environment, hence giving more choices to people to freely move. To achieve good permeability, some of the guidelines followed in today's practice are:

1) The provision for accessibility is expected to include and connect both public and private spaces. By controlling the number of route choices we tend to attain the right of privacy in certain necessary areas.

2) The alternative route choices should clearly be revealed or visible to everyone, hence the term visible permeability.

3) Understanding the advantages of smaller blocks rather than large blocks, which mean more choice of routes in the latter, hence the term physical permeability.

Keeping these guidelines, we design to attain a balance between the public and private spaces through access links, especially considering fronts and backs. Here is when the street network plays an important role. One of the most commonly opted patterns for a city is the grid pattern. "The grid provides choice". By achieving efficient connections and allowing through access where needed, the grid pattern in the perfect example of permeability.

For example, Portland city in America has a grid pattern network of streets and roads, with small block dimensions understanding the importance of permeability.

Another Indian city example is Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, which has followed the grid iron pattern. Each block is divided by the road network, in to mixed use blocks which are called sectors.


This is the quality that makes a place graspable. There are different levels of legibility: physical form and activity patterns. Legibility came in to being with history. Traditional cities were always legible due to the fact that the important civic buildings in the community or city used to have a sense of relevance with the local architectural flavour, but the modern city is all steel and glass with the western influence. So there always tends to be some sort of confusion there.

The key physical elements in making a place legible are: Paths, Edges, Nodes, Landmarks and Districts.

Path is the channel along which the observer customarily, occasionally or potentially moves. So Create predominant elements in the urban tissue, and also by setting an image of the urban layout. For example by concentrating special uses or activities on the street may give it predominance in the mind of the observer.

Edges normally are the linear element that defines a path. They also tend to behave as the boundaries between two character areas. They can be designed to give a sense of direction and improve the travel quality. The concentration of paths can be diverted with activities.

Nodes can be designed with strategic foci for an observer to typically enter these sorts of junction area. These could also be paths crossing, with a big public square or a landmark.

Landmarks tend to help the observer in terms of orientation, easily identifying also with the physical elements that bring it all together like the paths and edges. Also tends to bring about a feeling of class and uniqueness to the context.

Districts are relatively larger areas which can have a distinct characteristic by which the observer can relate to. For example like china town in London. Some of the main physical characteristics that determine a districts area can be an endless variety of components, texture, shapes, forms, detail, building types, inhabitants and topography etc.

Other than these main features the combining of new and existing elements can also try to grasp the observer. For instance combining paths and nodes, existing landmarks, edges and districts etc.

For example, the city of Bath has a very legible nodal character where all the buildings are at the node, which have the paths and the edges crossing at the junction. Combining altogether to be a part of a landmark character space.

At times when certain areas within a city aren't legible, it certainly becomes difficult to navigate around. In Chandigarh, though the grid iron pattern design was meant to make it more permeable, certain nodes and areas look exactly the same. Visitors find this to be of a big problem, since they tend to get lost easily.

So we understand the importance of how the permeability and legibility principles have to work together in order to achieve balance in the design.

These principles have a strong resemblance to the principles used in developing nations like India and China. British influence in the Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta can be easily seen as though like a big foot print. Understanding the overall impact of the railways and the colonization strategies of the British in India, urban designers have come away as far as the sustainable age of today. Incorporating the Indian cultural society in our neighbourhoods, slowly over the years, and at the same time being open to the western influence in design and policies has helped the Indian master planners to come forth with new innovative ideas to bring about changes to the Indian urban tissue.

Most of these principles really help the urban designer in building up a society with a character. Understanding these basic fundamentals, and working out design in context to the site only helps in increasing the quality of life. "Nothing is meant to be left for chance which means to say that today's city is not an accident. Its generic growth and form probably is unintentional, but it's not accidental." (Carmona, M.2003)