Urban Design in 10 Easy Steps

10 irreverent 'building blocks' of  urban designI covered the concept of DIY urbanism as part of my recent ABC’s of Urbanism series. Last week, Gordon Price, in his Price Tags blog, alerted me to the Darryl Chen’s recent contribution to the Urban Design journal. Entitled Darryl Chen’s Urban Design DIY: a (cheeky? incisive?) critique of pattern book urban design, the ‘photo’ essay offers an irreverent yet astute list of ten easy steps to creating an urban-design plan.

From Darryl’s website:

The more people involved in the regeneration planning process, the more it seems to require very smart people to negotiate that process for an engaging and innovative urbanism. There’s a breed of urban designers who are struggling within a bureaucratic, risk-averse and stultifyingly political design environment – and it comes to light in any issue of the UDG journal.

But that’s no excuse for pattern-book common-denominator trite that passes for urban design – and DIY Urban Design’s main targets are those organisations that have a made a buck out of banal formulaic masterplans. Follow the 10 steps and you too can be an urban designer!

Here is a transcript of the ten steps. Be sure to check out the original version on pages 14 and 15 of Urban Design.

Daryyl Chen’s Urban Design DIY

1. Site Analysis

Take postcard photos of things that you can find on the site, the more domestic the better – flowers, water, old buildings. Place photos in a grid and label this page: ‘Character’. This eases people into the report and proves that you have been to the site. Oh, you haven’t? Don’t worry–that’s what the internet is for!

2. Take a few photos

Of things that are not normally on postcards: Graffiti, children not smiling, an empty dark street … this demonstrates why you are here–to regenerate the place.

Make sure the pictures are really bad or you might find yourself out of a job.

3. State your objectives.

Copy, or cut and paste the following:

  • Maintain the special character of the place.
  • Introduce legibility through clearly defined streets and squares.
  • Increase permeability and connectivity.
  • Introduce high quality public space.

Screenshot of pat of page 15 of Urban Design 113 – Winter 2010

4. Draw the first plan.

The first plan means nothing so don’t spend very much time on it. Centre your site on the page at a regional scale (say a road map or regional view) and draw a line with an arrow to any airport, station or district centre that appears on your map.

Phew! That’s the context out of the way.

5. Draw the second plan.

The second plan is potentially controversial so make sure it is not too detailed and use bright coloured pens.

Divide the area up into about five chunks. Call these ‘Local Character’ areas.

At the meeting of the site boundary and the local street, mark with a dotted circle and designate: ‘Civic Gateway’. You don’t have to say what that actually means, but if anyone asks, say something like: ‘an urban design gesture that marks the threshold into the new area’ or some such nonsense.

6. Line every street with a continuous border

Between 10 and 20 metres wide. Make sure you leave a part blank for a square, preferably around the centre. You will end up with lots of squares and streets, but remember that’s what you said you were going to do in the objectives!

Colour the buildings darker near the centre and lighter as they become further away. Put these colours in a key called: ‘Building Heights’

If anyone accuses you of bastardizing 18th century Berlin, just remember that […] urban designers like to think they are European.

7. What will it look like?

You might have to google this one. There are plenty of good images out there that say nothing. Make sure you select one picture of a park with families flying kites or looking non-threatening, a street scene with people sitting outside a café, and a modern looking block of flats with young people on a balcony.

8. More googling.

The next page of your report will be filled with pictures arranged in a grid. Choose pictures of buildings and parks that you like and label this ‘Precedents’ (as though you were actually suggesting to built it like that – haha!)

9. You’re nearly there!

On the last page list the names of local arts organisations, community contacts and professional consultants you never contacted through the course of preparing your report. …

10. Sum up your findings

With a snappy statement line like: ‘The Masterplan offers an incremental strategy to deliver positive change.”

Voila, You’ve completed your first urban design report. Now start a company and get paid!

Please to check out the original article, to get the full photo essay experience of this list. You’ll be glad you did!

Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.


  1. Ouch. I’ve probably written somewhere about a plan offering “an incremental strategy to deliver positive change.” Pretty great critique of the urban design process.

    • I’m sure we have all written something along the same lines at some point in our career. It’s the nature of the bureaucracy that drives the (official side of) city planning. Hopefully, by highlighting how formulaic the process has begun, we can start rethinking the process and create an engaging and innovative urbanism.

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