How do you succeed as an urban designer?

We asked some of our urban design instructors about the most important skills for their craft. Frank Ducote shared his thoughts here, in part three of a three-part series.

Jack Poole Plaza, Vancouver. Photo by Colin Knowles.

Study one of the “parent” design disciplines of urban design at a good school – architecture, landscape architecture and/or urban planning. The latter is best in combination with one or both of the former two. The biggest lesson you will learn in school will be from your classmates and peers, not the instructors.

Drawing is the essence of urban design communication

Learn to draw and hone this key skill every day. There is no more fundamental skill to a career in urban design. Keep a sketchbook with you at all times. Learn by drawing the world around you; while doing so, try to understand how people use – or don’t use – urban spaces and places and buildings. Measure and document those places, using your own body and stride. Drawing is not a tool or technique like computer modelling is. It is the essence of urban design communication.

Almost as important, learn to express yourself and your ideas, as well as those of others, both in words and illustrations.

Never stop learning

Read and continue to re-read the core literature, but never stop learning through observation and lifelong study. I would start with the work of both Jacobses (Jane and Allan), Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen, Palladio, Colin Rowe, Christopher Alexander, Camillo Sitte, William H. White and Monty Python. (Yes, a sense of humour does help, in almost all things.) Try to understand the influence that time, place and cultural context have in the formation of their lasting contributions.

Learn what “human scale” means. It is not an abstract concept, but nonetheless as elusive as the Higgs boson particle!

Don’t let the search for the great get in the way of the good. A lot more everyday goodness is what we need in our urban environments. There's so much repair needed.

Identify key mentors and heroes, living and past, and be willing to learn from them, in large and small ways.

Be a team player

Play well with others. Work with fellow design professionals and laypeople in a team context, but also know the value of your own ideas. Having said that, be willing to let go of ownership of your own ideas; they only have value in urban design if enough other people embrace them and want to see them become reality. This definitely includes politicians and decision makers.

Ideas are cheap, implementation is paramount. There is no greater truth than this, despite what professors may say, including me.

Become a mentor yourself. Pay it forward.

About the author

Frank Ducote is one of the most experienced urban designers in British Columbia, having worked at the municipal level for more than 25 years, and for the last decade as a private consultant in his own practice. In addition to being a sole practitioner in his firm, Frank Ducote Urban Design, he continues to teach courses at SFU Continuing Studies.

Ducote served as senior planner and senior urban designer for the City of Vancouver for over 11 years and has held similar roles in San Diego’s City Architect’s Office, the City of North Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver, where he still works on a part-time basis. 

Take a course with Frank Ducote