By Andrew Goodman
Planner, PennPraxis

"It's difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” – William Whyte

Urban design creates a framework for our lives, so understanding how humans perceive the physical scale and form of cities is essential to mastering it.

We feel and experience urban design every day. Sites can be so masterfully designed that we may take the built environment as a given, not thinking twice about how we respond to our surroundings. However, assumptions about human nature lie behind every house and intersection. Every road width and building height delivers a message to their users on how to use the public realm.

Design brings order and relation into human surroundings, often so well that we cannot imagine them in any other form. Different designs affect residents in different ways, and make the city’s image more vivid and memorable.

Embedded in urban design theories is the fundamental goal of balancing private development and public good in a way that incorporates the social, economic, and cultural needs of a diverse urban population.

This balance can take many different forms, as we can see in many examples within Philadelphia itself.

Wood Street steps

Though many see urban design theories as highfalutin discussions of fine arts or engineering, successful designs are actually determined by the public at-large rather than academia. Urban design must solve practical problems of functionality first and foremost, as it creates tools for people and their quality of life. After all, buildings are not brush strokes: they are our homes, our most prized possessions. They are formed to be lived in, not just seen from the outside, which is why many gorgeous forms fail if they cannot function successfully in particular contexts. Like a gardener who selects inappropriate flowers for the climate, the urban designer’s plan is meaningless if it does not properly consider its location.

The city is produced by everyday people, for everyday people, so it should be easily comprehensible for all. Good urban design begins with the site’s “problems” as inspiration and addresses them through scale, proportion, light, contrast, texture, color, and composition. The design process creates a harmony and rhythm that moves with its users, as well as a character that can give impressions of heaviness and lightness, hardness and softness. These visual pleasures have functional uses, balancing the energy of city life with its adjacent uses. Successful sites will convey a special spirit to its users. Good urban design must be attuned to the rhythm of the era, but also stands the test of time. It is adaptable when one business fails; its sense of permanence makes it imperative to re-use.

Urban design establishes a hierarchy and gives us a way to read the built environment. It presents a sense of human scale, and we respond and react differently depending on such aspects as building size, relation to context and open space, massing, materials, and others. Even open space is planned, though no buildings have been constructed on it. Parks, streets, squares, alleys, and walkways represent the connective tissue that holds our daily life together, free and open to be used as the public needs it. And how nearby buildings frame these open spaces and relate to distances is no mistake: building arrangement alone can affect how we move through public spaces.

Urban design frames our lives, channeling adjacent uses to tell an interesting story. It establishes the level of safety in our neighborhood, building rowhouses dense enough so that eyes are always on the street. It helps us run into old friends, framing public spaces so that our paths cross with neighbors regularly. Urban design is about people as social animals, not as abstract design qualities. We need look no further than our own city for proof. Philadelphia is a unique urban design textbook of sorts, with many examples of how different theories are applied in reality, the problems they solve, and the questions that remain. Recall how you experience different sites in Philadelphia: its roads, its public squares, its retail centers. These three uses can elicit dozens of different feelings and experiences as we use them depending on where we are in the city and the form/design they take.

Why do these differences exist? Why do some work and others do not? Ask yourself these questions as you move through Philadelphia every day, as the answers reveal some interesting truths about the importance of urban design to our quality of life. Through this lens we can answer some important questions and reach some important truths. This is a citizen-based process, so it’s up to us to determine what works in our city and sensitively adapt it to the 21st century. Urban design is something that must be experienced; we can sense inappropriate design through feelings of discomfort as we move through it. Let’s share these experiences to create a civic vision that is distinctly Philadelphian.


Jacobs, Jane, Death and Life of Great American Cities
Lynch, Kevin, and Hack, Gary, Site Planning
Lynch, Kevin, The Image of the City
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) –
Rasmussen, Steen Eiler, Experiencing Architecture
Whyte, William, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

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