Urban Design Principles Address
Form and Function

Last updated: August 7, 2023

When urban design principles are applied consistently in a neighborhood, city, or town, the appearance of both private sector new construction and the public space between the edge of the street and the front of the buildings will be enhanced. Property values should increase, and the functioning of the street will improve as well. If you are a neighborhood or city leader, understanding something about this topic helps you analyze why certain blocks are more appealing than others and make good decisions about development or redevelopment. 

I cannot say you how many times in my practice as an urban planner some city or commercial district leader or neighborhood association president has bemoaned the blah appearance of an area. I think that happens because those in power have not paid enough attention to urban design.

three-story townhouses and taller building useful for discussing urban design principles

Below we give you 11 principles, all of which are based on my observation and not some textook, that will start you on the path toward good urban design. Urban design combines ideas from architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning, with some general urban theory in evidence as well. The term entered the vocabulary in the 1950s, but there is little agreement on its usage.

However, most community people think that urban design principles especially emphasize what may be called the public space. This public realm includes the street, sidewalk, and area between the street and the sidewalk, as well as civic buildings, plazas, parks, and greenways.

You also will hear talk about building facades during passionate discussions about urban design principles. Urban design tends to be defined in terms of objects, patterns, textures, repetitions, themes, and disparate elements that one might observe from the street.

The scale of the discussion of urban design principles might legitimately range from a block to an entire city. And despite the term "urban design," smaller towns and cities, including villages, need to become very aware of urban design principles.

Citizens' List of 11 Urban Design Principles

While the boundaries of the field may be elusive, we can and should set forth some of the most obvious urban design principles that will help you create a vibrant community. 

1. Centers and nodes set up the pattern for the city.

A village, town, or city needs one or more focal points, depending on size. Traditionally these were the downtowns. Now most regions are multi-centric (sometimes called polycentric). It's actually fine to have more than one center in a large city, but sound urban design principles would describe a hierarchy of centers. The downtown should the king of the hill.

Node is simply a term more likely to be used by professionals for the idea of an activity center or an area where traffic, money, information, or other flows come together.

You might have employment centers, shopping centers, entertainment centers, or multi-function activity centers.

Each center or node should exude a strong sense of place. If you were a tyrant and you could make the perfect hierarchical set of nodes within a major city, you also should make each center or node have some distinctive elements.

Thus cultivating a dynamic and exciting community center or hierarchy of centers, that most people can "read" intuitively, is perhaps the most important of the urban design principles. When applied to a city or town, "legible" means that people from the same culture have an intuitive sense of what is coming next and how to navigate; thus we say that they can read their surroundings.

Incidentally, sprawl ruins legibility. (That's a whole other section of this website.)

2. Creating a strong sense of place is key to a successful neighborhood.

If you hang around the architecture or planning communities, you'll hear this term bandied about as if it were something you learned in kindergarten. I didn't learn it until much later, so let's talk.

Certainly distinguishing this place from other places on the basis of history, culture, well-preserved natural systems, and distinctive human inventiveness and ornamentation somehow stimulates the brain in a pleasant way.

If you flatten off the mountaintop, which I still see occasionally, haven't you given up a very distinguishing feature? I'd love to see a mountain outside my window now instead of asphalt, concrete, Bradford pear trees, a distant awning, and a non-descript building.

Recognizing history, including human history, natural history, and cultural history, contributes greatly to the collective memory that helps form a great community.

district needs to feel like a district, that is, a relatively cohesive place with boundaries. In the influential 1961 book The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch called these boundaries "edges," and they should be discernible.

If you work at the neighborhood scale, it's important to define your neighborhood boundaries. The edges enhance sense of place also, because they reinforce the notion that we are leaving one place and entering another. For more on this topic, see our answer to a site visitor's question about the significance of community edges.

3. "Theme and variation" is among the key urban design principles.

Over and over in these pages, we are reminded that urban design principles are similar to the key concept behind music, which is establishing a theme or two, and then proceeding to endless but delightful  variations and complexities rendered on the themes.

This is especially true when we consider architecture.  Buildings on a street may be generally two-story brick, but we might want to see different colors of brick, slightly varying building heights, slightly varying window and door patterns, inventive use of accent color, and even the occasional three-story brick or stucco building that is in sympathy with other building patterns on the face of the block.  Maybe the cornice type and height varies along the block face.

So theme and variation is among the key urban design principles. In a town, you want some slight degree of predictability about buildings, in a neighborhood a little more predictability, and on a block, still more predictability.

Yet in all cases, we still want to be surprised. We humans need variety and delight in the creativity of others. Don't take that away if you want a successful town or city.

But if you shock us on every block with a radically different look and feel, it's going to read like a museum of architecture and not a very homey one at that.

4. Decide where to make a design statement, make it, but don't make it everywhere.

Attention to quality, detail, and workmanship count in the public realm.

You would like each design element to look as though someone thought about it, at least a little, and fit the form to the function.

In other words, I want the door of the art museum to be a more interesting and unique door than the door to the paper cup factory. The occasional handmade and artful detail is essential to the perception that someone cares about this place.

You don't have to be clever about traffic lights; predictability is generally more important than a design statement there. However, when you have a bench along the sidewalk, it shouldn't look as though it came from the discount store. Nor should I have to hang my feet out into the street to use it.

The benches, planters, street trees with tree grates, litter cans, and such that you see along many commercial streets collectively are called a streetscape, by the way. Often it's best not to spend money on streetscape unless you can do it well.

So decide where urban design principles need to be subtle and functional, versus conscious and even decorative. Architects would remind us that this means that there should be some thoughtful "articulation" (doors, windows, details, and "relief" in the form of different vertical planes on the front wall) on walls facing the public realm, rather than simply blank walls.

But if you carry out an elaborate cornice system on the rear of the building where no one can see it, maybe you're just being impractical.

Landmarks are important in making people feel comfortable in a place, but each building can't be a landmark. That would defeat the purpose.

In the public space, your backflow preventer cover doesn't need to be lavender, but maybe the flowers in your planters should be lavender with some yellow and white thrown in for contrast.

Usually your street furniture (benches and such) is important, but perhaps an exquisite uplight for your street tree less so. That's a judgment call, and one that requires a well-trained eye.

5. Urban design should promote and facilitate social interaction.

Just walk across the plaza and meet me. Don't call me on your cell phone from the driveway.

Seriously, social interaction is important because this is how we develop empathy and form new acquaintances and friendships, based on accidental association among classes and people with diverse outlooks.

In the professional community, you will hear about related urban design principles of "human scale" and "pedestrian scale." Designing for the human scale implies everything from keeping street lighting at a height that lights the way for pedestrians, rather than only for cars, to designing some places that are appropriate for intimate and semi-private conversations in the public realm.

When you build a great cathedral (who's done that lately?), you want it to be awe-inspiring and to point to something far greater than human scale. But for most everyday interactions, including commerce, people unconsciously respond very well to keeping street level features at the human scale.

6. The social system should be more important than vehicular systems.

People are more important than machines. OK, you all say you agree.

But some of you really don't, because I see you build highways that bisect neighborhoods, parishes, and extended families. When there is only one path, and that path accommodates only machines, which could describe how the interstate highways function in some parts of cities, we're all in trouble. For one thing, wide highways can be used as blunt instruments enforcing racial, ethnic, and economic inequalities.

And when accommodating all the automobiles at the regional shopping mall du jour for the Saturday before Christmas means that we should asphalt acres and acres, we're forgetting that people are more important than our machines.

7. De-emphasize utilitarian, but gray portions of the public realm.

We mean those gray, brown, or rusty streets, roads, stormwater inlets, manholes, utility boxes, ugly bridges, and so forth. With determined effort, you can design an attractive and brightly colored street and you certainly can build a good-looking bridge. By all means, paint some of this gray stuff a vibrant color with a great design.

However, making every road an art statement isn’t the answer. The answer is skinnier roads and more options for walking, cycling, and transit. Look into a complete streets policy and see if you don't like it.

Land use patterns and the amount of private land that each residence is allowed to absorb are major determinants of how much of a metropolitan or micropolitan area must be devoted to roads and other gray infrastructure.

So your urban design principles should emphasize compact development patterns and the most narrow and unobtrusive infrastructure that will accomplish the goal of a well-functioning flow of people and goods.

One way to minimize utilitarian elements of the public realm is to combine them on a single pole or in an unobtrusive area on top of a building. For example, consider how your small cell technology for broadband, satellite dishes, sensors for traffic control and many other purposes, surveillance cameras, and lighting can be combined in the least visually distracting manner possible.

8. Functional methods of transporting people of all abilities, goods, and utilities are essential.

Here's where many American cities and towns are failing.

Is it really functional to have every desirable destination lined up along a single roadway, which then becomes ridiculously congested along about 5:00 p.m. every Friday? Surely it is not.

Is it useful for people to have to commute to work for 30 miles? Maybe that is somewhat useful, but not economically efficient or friendly to the environment.

In most contemporary American cities, the pedestrian, the cyclist, the scooter user, the baby carriage, and the skateboarder are all but forgotten. Making it safe and easy for these people to move over the land is an essential part of a functional transportation system.

The flows of people, electricity, water, freight, and so forth literally comprise the urban structure. So the distribution of people, goods, and energy should be redundant, intelligible, and efficient..

For example, when a freeway is being rebuilt, we need an alternate street system. This is why it's a mistake to destroy a historic street grid, which allows for abundant detours that are only slightly less efficient than the route of choice. Incidentally, it is very wise to question why the freeway needs to be rebuilt at all; maybe tearing it down will breathe new life into an area.

A system of cul-de-sacs may provide a comforting sense of familiarity, and thus meet the intelligibility factor for those who live there. However, visitors from outside the neighborhood won't find it so easy to navigate because it isn't redundant. And systems that don't have ready substitutes are unforgiving of small mistakes, or of people who don't drive.

Kids, the frail elderly, and the temporarily or permanently disabled actually comprise a substantial portion of the population, so we need to accommodate their movement.

Your community also needs to start responding to and planning for transportation trends, including the rapid rise of ride hailing services and the coming era of autonomous vehicles. Both of these imply a reduced need for on-street parking, but an increased need for drop-off and pick-up zones where a few minutes of parking is allowed.

9. Land use is usually secondary to building scale, mass, and setbacks.

Elsewhere we describe how segregating land uses through zoning was the norm in urban planning until a paradigm shift that began in the 1980s. And we're pretty consistent proponents of mixed-use development. But that doesn't mean a complete hodge-podge.

Imagine trying to walk down a sidewalk by a street, and in this order you pass:

  • A dry cleaner with a small amount of suburban type parking in front of it
  • A typical big box discount store
  • An apartment complex with three or four driveways onto the public street and two rows of parking in front of the first buildings
  • A large old single-family house
  • A four-story brick office building of vaguely Colonial architecture

This is disorienting, isn't it?

So not every mix of uses is a good one. Complete lack of consistency in building setback and height, as well as a disparate set of uses, isn't comfortable. So the soundest of urban design principles is that the land and building uses need to be compatible with their neighbors, particularly if you can see from one to another.

Is a concrete plant likely to need to be close to a Five-Star restaurant? I think not. But would a loft condominium development marketing to young people need to be near a moderately priced, loud, and popular restaurant? Yes, that would be a selling point.

10. Civic and public gathering space should be generous.

Probably civic space is simply another twist on the idea of a sense of place, but let's emphasize that there should be a physical place where people can have chance encounters and also purposeful gatherings.

Every culture needs to demonstrate its pride in some heritage or accomplishment, and every democratic country needs places where those who are unhappy can assemble.

But what makes a good civic space is appropriate scale, visibility from one end to the other, a sense of spaciousness adequate for the likely number of participants, the look and feel of being "on purpose" without being overly formal, and the capability for random patterns of movement.

And pay attention to the new urbanist idea of giving civic buildings and spaces a prominent place within the community. Don't put them down by the railroad track where no one else wants to be; make them the end point of a great long view.

11. Urban design complexity should be proportionate to the Size and Age of the City.

The larger the city, the more complexity it can bear in design elements, and indeed some cityscapes thrive on nearly complete chaos. That is why you might find older European cities and New York City so interesting. 

Yet that can only be a pleasant experience when the human flow and other flows within the city are already  large, random, and slightly chaotic. So complexity or simplicity needs to be compatible with the number of inhabitants, whether permanent or on a seasonal or daytime basis.

In a small town, you can still manage layers of complexity, and the best small towns do, as we discuss on the small town character page. But the scale is drastically reduced. By this I mean that you might have a complex rose garden 20 feet across, rather than the cacophony of businesses, street vendors, street performers, entrances, signs, art, whimsy, and honking taxis that are part of the fun in a New York City block.

The Evolving Field of Urban Design

Urban design is a fascinating and certainly evolving field. People tend to claim their particular slant on how communities should be formed as representative of good urban design principles.

One of the search terms that found this page concerned whether these principles are universal in all cultures. I tend to think not, but we would like to hear what some of you think.

My best advice is that you have to decide in your community on your own urban design principles. If your town or city is full of life, full of people enjoying themselves, relating to one another, doing business with one another, and creating things, you have a great urban design, whether the design professionals think so or not.

When everything is high concept design, nothing stands out; you're better off with a well-functioning community full of people relating well to one another, than with a too-precious and too self-conscious "design."

On the other hand, you may be ready to try to enforce a community-determined set of ideas about how all or part of your community should look and function.  If so, please read our introduction to local design guidelines, which might be either mandatory or advisory.  Such standards are part of almost all historic district designations and condominium master deeds, but increasingly are used to make local design review less arbitrary.

Read More To Further Expand Your Thinking About Urban Design