If you have a passion for architecture, design and the built environment and enjoy building relationships, then a career in urban design could suit you

As an urban designer, you'll create practical and visually pleasing places, including buildings, open spaces and landscapes. Playing a vital part of a much bigger team, you'll help to bring viable developments to life, ensuring that the environments you create are both useful and enjoyable.

Urban design is a relatively new profession, which has grown considerably as a career path and particularly over the last 25 years. A career in this field offers an interesting and varied environment with good opportunities for progression. The sector continues to grow at a steady rate in line with growing populations.

Types of urban design work

You would usually specialise in one area, such as:

  • urban environments - towns and cities
  • rural environments - villages
  • spatial - parks, open landscapes
  • generalist - working on projects that range across all of the above.

Responsibilities

As an urban designer, you'll need to:

  • survey land and buildings, analyse their current use and make recommendations for their future development
  • work under your own initiative and direction, as part of a large and multi-skilled team, including architects, local government, building contractors, material suppliers and local communities
  • be creative and innovative in your ability to picture buildings and landscapes in your mind before creating them on paper
  • apply your vision to designing a variety of built spaces, either creating brand new designs or revising and improving existing ones – these could range from small individual streets, parks and squares to major towns, housing areas and cities
  • work on projects as diverse as airports or hospitals
  • create detailed drawings using your artistic or graphic skills, converting your vision into a technical drawing, using specific programmes and software such as computer-aided design (CAD)
  • develop excellent relationships with people - both colleagues and wider groups such as planners, architects, politicians and local communities
  • understand the needs of people who will be using the space you design; through research and analysis you will consider political, environmental, social, economic, spatial, psychological and physical factors
  • use your communication skills, empathy and knowledge to negotiate with and influence people to make better informed decisions about successfully planned spaces
  • educate communities involved with the planning of their local region or neighbourhood
  • work with the wider planning team to ensure policies and guidance are followed.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for junior urban designers are between £22,000 and £25,000.
  • Experienced urban designers can earn between £29,000 and £40,000.
  • Senior urban designers, or those in the position of partner or associate within a firm, could earn £45,000 to £55,000+ depending on the types and size of projects undertaken.

Most urban designers are employed by an organisation, rather than working on a freelance basis, though some go on to launch their own urban design consultancies. Depending on the type and size of organisation you work for, you may be given some benefits such as a mobile phone or company car, as the role requires regular site visits.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You can expect a varied and busy career as an urban designer which is reflected in the working hours and environment. While some of your time will be office based and Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, there will also be plenty of on-site visits to check on the progress of your work and help deal with any challenges that arise.

Meetings with local communities often occur during the evenings, so some evening and weekend work is to be expected. Although paid overtime isn't usually offered for work done outside your usual hours, organisations often offer time off in lieu. Taking annual leave usually takes place outside of peak times or deadline periods within a project.

Part-time work and job share are possible.

What to expect

  • There is a very equal balance of men and women working as urban designers.
  • The work can be stressful, particularly when project deadlines are due, so you'll need to enjoy a fast-paced and constantly evolving work environment and be able to work under pressure.
  • Urban design can be hugely rewarding work. You'll be involved in creating places and spaces that improve peoples' lives and will create a legacy across towns, cities, villages and open spaces, often working for greater sustainability and positive environmental impact.
  • It's essential to be self-motivated and highly organised for this role. You'll be looked to as the expert in your field of urban design and will need to help to lead the project, ensuring it's delivered on time and within budget.
  • You may find that for formal meetings with officials or community groups you'll be required to wear smart or business dress. Casual, practical clothes are worn for site visits. When on site you'll also be required to wear the appropriate safety garments, such as a hard hat, high-visibility jacket or steel toe-capped boots.

Qualifications

As an urban designer, you'll have completed a bachelor's degree in a related subject, or a foundation degree that enables you to progress with further undergraduate study.

Suitable subjects include:

  • architecture
  • built environment
  • civil engineering
  • construction management
  • economics
  • geography
  • graphic design
  • human geography
  • urban design
  • urban planning.

Unlike other sectors, such as architecture, urban design is not an accredited profession and there is no professional body governing the content of higher education courses in the field. You may therefore find that course content varies from one university to another.

Many employers look for a Masters level qualification in a relevant subject, plus additional work experience. So, if you have for example studied architecture as an undergraduate, you could consider completing a Masters qualification in urban design in addition.

A less common route into urban design could be moving across from a related role, such as town planning. This would most likely involve completing a part-time Masters in a related subject as part of your professional development.

As populations grow, the need for suitable living spaces created by urban and rural planning increases. As a result, the urban design sector continues to expand with good opportunities and prospects. In addition to the relevant qualifications, work experience is absolutely key in securing your first post.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • a keen interest in both design and the built environment
  • an ability to work on complex projects which are prone to change
  • good technical and artistic skills
  • a strong analytical and problem-solving mindset
  • a resilient approach
  • good communication skills, including the ability to listen, educate and empathise
  • the ability to juggle multiple priorities
  • excellent organisation skills, needed to meet deadlines
  • a good head for figures so that you can understand budgets, keep track of costs and provide estimates of costings for design work to be done
  • an interest in working independently and as part of a multi-skilled team
  • excellent attention to detail
  • skills in the relevant software technological programmes, or the aptitude to learn from appropriate training
  • a willingness to present to groups of people at all levels
  • a strong desire to make changes to the built environment for the better
  • passion for the complex and changeable scope and future of cities, towns, villages and landscapes.

Work experience

Urban design is a highly practical and skilled profession, so previous work experience either in a voluntary capacity or as part of a programme of study is essential. Many courses offer the opportunity to engage with relevant placements or internships, but the focus will be on you to source and secure these.

The type of work experience you get will depend on the type of organisation you work for - from public sector to private sector and small to large firms. The more work experience you can complete, the better. Try to obtain experience with a variety of employers, covering a range of project sizes and types. A breadth of experience will give you a strong advantage and a very useful insight.

Employers

Urban designers are employed by both the private and public sector. Employers include consultancies, developers and local authorities. The types of design projects you'll work on will largely depend on the type and size of organisation you are employed by and whether the organisation has a specialism. For example, a consultancy that specialises in sustainability or green builds, or a local authority with a mandate for the growth of schools in the region.

Employment within an organisation is common, but with enough experience you may go on to start your own business or consultancy. To pursue the self-employed option, you'll need to be highly motivated and have a good understanding of what is entailed in running a business. Setting up your own consultancy would give you the chance to specialise within a particular area of interest or take a generalist approach to projects undertaken.

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Professional development

As your urban design career grows, there are plenty of opportunities for professional development. Since there is currently no governing professional body, you'll need to explore training and development options based on your own interests and skills. This can be done in partnership with your employer.

You could, for example, decide you'd like to undertake additional training in a niche area such as design for sustainable cities, or to undertake training on policy developments in urban planning. You may want to consider blending this approach with skills development in leadership and management. Most often, training will take place through external courses, conferences or workshops and seminars, such as those listed on Urban Design Group.

Due to the growth in the sector there are continual advances in the technology, so it's important to keep your knowledge up to date.

Depending on your route into urban design, you may also find your professional development grows in line with your original subject of study. For example, if you studied architecture as an undergraduate, you would have registered as a free member of RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) for stages 1 and 2, and will continue to benefit from their continuing professional development (CPD) courses for the duration of your membership.

Career prospects

With your qualifications and work experience in place, you could expect to begin your career in urban design in a junior entry-level role. This should give you plenty of opportunity to gain experience, build your portfolio of work and increase your understanding of which way you'd like to develop your career.

After five or so years, you could expect to move into more senior urban design roles, receiving a higher salary and undertaking more complex or larger-scale projects, for which you would have increased responsibility.

Typically, after approximately ten to fifteen years and depending on the experience you have gained and skills you have developed, you could be working at associate or partner level (in a consultancy based environment), or as a head of department within a local authority, or private sector company such as Arup. At this level it's likely that you'll have overall responsibility for large-scale design projects, including budget and team management.