How do I become an Urban Designer?
June 17, 2010 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Which is the best pathway into Urban Design?

I graduated with a degree in English Literature in 2005. I haven't had much success in finding employment so I'm starting to explore new career possibilities, one of which is Urban Design. I'm mostly interested in designing / redesigning the physical fabric of city plazas and other communal spaces. Which university pathway would offer the best scope for entering this line of work- a degree in Architecture, or a course in Urban Planning followed by an MA in Urban Design?

I'm at a very early stage in researching this subject, so any other information or advice would be greatly appreciated. As a UK resident, I would especially like to find out about the prospects for working in the Urban Design field in East Asia.
posted by Black Spring to Education (13 answers total)
If finding employment is the ultimate goal, you might want to reconsider urban design/planning/architecture as the means. The market is really not very good at all, and there are a lot of people out of work, or working in other fields due to the market. (I have a lot of urban planners and architects as friends.)
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:42 PM on June 17, 2010

Are you talking about an advanced degree or re-doing an undergraduate level degree and then progressing on to something else? Admiral Haddock is pretty spot-on about the job market. However, you might also consider Landscape Architecture programs as a lot of the urban designers I know came from that field. I would definitely shy away from Architecture though, if you're really interested in Urban Design. You'll spend way too much time learning about structures and mechanical stuff and thinking about individual buildings as opposed to streetscapes, plazas, and public realm issues.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:47 PM on June 17, 2010

Urban planning won't teach you much about urban design. And Admiral Haddock is correct, the market is abysmal. I agree that landscape architecture is the way to go. I would guess that a focus on sustainable design would improve your job prospects.
posted by desjardins at 2:49 PM on June 17, 2010

Sorry, I can't speak to the job market in UK or East Asia. Disregard that part.
posted by desjardins at 2:50 PM on June 17, 2010

Urban planning won't teach you much about urban design

This depends on the department -- some have a strong focus on physical design; others treat it as a minor extra that you touch on for one day in an intro survey class.
posted by Forktine at 2:53 PM on June 17, 2010

If you really want to do urban design, get into an architecture program, but balance that with urban planning classes so that you keep focused on the functionality and social life of the city (post-occupancy evaluations of how people actually use space, most importantly, but also broader issues important to planners like affordable housing) and carefully avoid becoming a design snob focused primarily on aesthetics, and make sure you remember how to write well. (Those are the negative stereotypes planners have of architects.) You might try to find a dual degree M.Arch./MUD program.

The architecture career path has always been really grueling, and in the US, planning is pretty hard-hit right now too, but East Asia might be another story entirely. The best advice I can give you is to get a really broad background so that even if a job at an urban design consulting firm doesn't work out, you have a range of alternatives.
posted by salvia at 3:11 PM on June 17, 2010

Yeah, from browsing university websites I had gotten the initial impression that Landscape Architecture was principally concerned with parks and rural areas, whereas Urban Design was concerned with urban spaces, but I'll certainly look into it further now.

I had expected the worst from the UK / US job markets, both at present and in the forseeable future. However I have a deep interest in the cities of the Far East, and I wondered whether I could combine my interest in Urban Design with my wish to live and work in rapidly-expanding countries such as China or Malaysia where the markets haven't contracted as hard.
posted by Black Spring at 3:14 PM on June 17, 2010

I wondered whether I could combine my interest in Urban Design with my wish to live and work in rapidly-expanding countries such as China or Malaysia

At the risk of being overly basic, the obvious first step (if you haven't done this before) is to learn a language appropriate to the area where you want to work. Begin this now, while you are still figuring out what course of study to pursue (unless, again, you are already bilingual).

Secondly, at some point (now, or partway through your degree program), you will need to spend some time in that part of the world. You can read books about a place's social and physical issues all day long, but unless you've seen it, walked it, smelled it, and felt it, you don't genuinely understand a place.
posted by Forktine at 3:22 PM on June 17, 2010

OP, you may be uniquely suited for bringing urban design to the Far East; I know nothing about you. However, you may want to keep in mind that 1) there are design and planning idioms and traditions (to say nothing of cultural and "doing business" considerations, and language barriers) in the East that a Western program may not prepare you for; 2) planning is, as far as I've seen, a pretty insular field generally, which tends to hire from within (it is exceedingly difficult to break in to); and 3) there are a LOT of people from Asia who are already in these programs who intend to return to their home countries. I know a lot of people from DUSP at MIT, and you see a lot of foreign nationals in the program who return to their homelands to do the jobs you want.

I wouldn't borrow funds to enroll in a planning program to make money. That way lies madness. Borrow to do it because you want to do it (it is very interesting), or try to make money if you don't have to pay much to enroll. In any event, good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:24 PM on June 17, 2010

Forktine, I've spent six months in China and more than a year in the rest of Asia but I don't speak any Asian languages.

Thanks Admiral Haddock - I've saved enough to cover 3-4 years' worth of tuition fees already (at current UK rates, though they're liable to rise rapidly next year.)
posted by Black Spring at 3:36 PM on June 17, 2010

As far as further research goes, there's a program at the AA in Landscape Urbanism that you might be interested in.
posted by Pork-Chop Express at 3:40 PM on June 17, 2010

I'm mostly interested in designing / redesigning the physical fabric of city plazas and other communal spaces.

This is what landscape architects do.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:01 PM on June 17, 2010

These redirections to Landscape Architecture certainly help. I think I've been barking up the wrong tree(s) while browsing potential degree courses!
posted by Black Spring at 4:12 PM on June 17, 2010

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