What’s the difference between urban planning and urban design?

Urban planners and an urban designer are passionate about building sustainable public spaces.
Urban planners and an urban designer are passionate about building sustainable public spaces.

There’s a good reason why we have trouble telling the difference between urban planning and urban design – and that’s because they both have the same priorities.

At least that’s the experience of Professor Heather MacDonald, Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at UTS.

“The urban designers I know are passionate about the same things planners are passionate about – how to build sustainable, just, and socially connected public spaces,” says MacDonald.

How they achieve those goals is where we find the real differences between urban planners and urban designers. Dr Gabriela Quintana Vigiola is the Course Director of the Master of Urban Planning and the Master of Urban Design at UTS and explains they are different sides of the same coin.

“Urban design focuses more on the shape and form of spaces, as well as people’s experiences of a place. Urban planning focuses on how these spaces function in an effective way to make people’s lives better. Both disciplines focus on the sustainability, adaptability and safety of cities – which is why both disciplines go hand in hand.”

What is urban planning?

Urban planning is a strategic high-level job with the purpose of shaping cities, often involving a variety of stakeholders.

“Planners are passionate about cities in general and how they evolve and function. They aim to make the world a better place,” says Quintana Vigiola.

Bill Hames is an urban planner who has recently been reflecting on his role in the city planning of Perth’s satellite city Joondalup.

"It's a bit frightening, because you're going to put things onto paper that are going to become reality," says Hames.

Fast forward 30 years and the line that Hames drew on a piece of paper and called Grand Boulevard is living up to its name as the main artery of a city with great quality of life.

It was a future that Hames could see as an urban planner, despite its humble beginnings as undeveloped open space with little land use and one tiny road. This macro view of the urban environment is what defines urban planning.

What is urban design?

Urban design is a hands-on role that takes care of the design of the elements that make up cities – building forms, streets, green spaces, community areas and more.

“Urban designers tend to be really good observers of how details of the physical environment produce an overall experience for users,” says MacDonald.

“They can articulate how design elements work together – such as a strip of vegetation between a footpath and the road – or don’t work, like a narrow footpath on a busy road.”

Margie McKay works for the City of Melbourne, leading a team of urban designers who are working on the Melbourne Transport Strategy 2030. They provide design advice and are “involved in the strategy and policy end of the design scale”.

The strategy aims to create an efficient, safe and sustainable transport network to cater for population growth.

“One of the strategy’s key directions is about supporting the walking economy. Walking is the most spatially efficient form of transport, followed by public transport and cycling, and this has driven the strategy’s priorities and framing,” says McKay.

Urban planning vs urban design

While urban planners and urban designers work on projects with the same desired outcome of sustainability, they are separate roles. The role that suits you best will depend on your skills and personal interests. 

To be successful in urban planning, you’ll need great communication skills, including the ability to be a great negotiator.

Urban design requires excellent technical design skills. You’ll also need great communication skills – especially listening to really understand the user experience.

What urban planning and urban design will always share in common is the desired outcome of sustainability. Together they create urban spaces that sustain people and the environment.

Whichever side of the coin you choose, you can improve your communication skills, upgrade your qualifications and advance your competitive advantage with the right master’s degree.

An Infographic showing the difference between urban planning and urban design

Urban planner vs urban designer

In Professor MacDonald’s experience, urban planners are passionate about the cities they live in, and they have strong thoughts on what works well – and what doesn’t.

“Planners tend to have a strong sense of what needs to improve – whether that’s connected bike paths or more affordable housing.”

That passion isn’t limited to the urban landscape they live in. In fact, urban planners want to share the well-being that comes from urban and regional planning with everyone.

“Urban planners have a strong sense of collective values. They don’t just want to fix affordable housing or bike paths in their own neighbourhood, they want society to offer sustainable development, healthy transport options, and a more just and stable housing sector to everyone,” says Professor MacDonald.

In contrast, Dr Quintana Vigiola says urban designers are no less passionate, but more focused on how people move around, and experience built environments.

“Urban designers are a complex mix between people-orientated and technical-orientated professionals, where both elements are important,” says Dr Quintana Vigiola.

“Great urban designers achieve great technical outcomes such as places and built forms that are outstandingly designed, whilst responding to people’s needs and wants.”

If you love improving society, study urban planning

The beauty of studying urban planning is that we all have a real-world experience of living in urban areas, whether they're good examples of town planning – or not.

As a strategic occupation, urban planning also benefits from having individuals with different backgrounds.

Whether you’ve worked as a teacher, lawyer, project manager, environmental scientist or in any other field, you’ll have valuable insights that can be used to improve society.

In addition to having good communication skills and strong values, successful urban planners require a range of skills.

Skills for Urban Planning

If you love upgrading the user experience, study urban design

An effectively designed place is a space with meaning. The user experience will be the judge of that meaning.

“Urban designers are good at thinking organically about how people use space or react emotionally to different sorts of environments,” says Professor MacDonald.

If you have a background in architecture, strategic planning or environmental science, you could be well on your way to improving the user experience by implementing effective urban development.

Like urban planners, urban designers also need to be skilled in a range of areas.

Skills for Urban Design

How to fast-track your career in urban planning and design

If you have a bachelor’s degree in any discipline, then UTS has the postgraduate degree that will fast-track your career in urban planning and design. These courses are 100% online which improves accessibility, and means you can continue to work while you get qualified.

The Master of Urban Planning takes a deep dive into environmental and social impact assessments as well as urban economics and infrastructure funding.

The Master of Urban Design goes heavy on the technical urban design skills to enable you to bring your creative ideas for the urban form to life.

Did you know you can have the best of both worlds?

Both the Master of Urban Planning and Master of Urban Design are built on the same base of sustainable urban design fundamentals and planning theory.

That means that by picking up a few extra subjects, you can graduate with two postgraduate degrees.

Never again will you be stumped by the question, ‘What’s the difference between urban planning and urban design?’

To learn more about these online courses, get in touch with our Enrolment Advisors on 1300 477 423.