What skills are essential for a successful urban design career?

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

Sunset Beach, Vancouver. Photo by La Citta Vita.

Urban design is the art and science of making communities for people. It is the process by which communities—cities, towns and neighbourhoods—are planned, designed and built. A successful career in urban design requires mastery of three major roles:

The Linguist

The urban designer should be trained in the many urban languages of the world. History, culture, relationships and transitions all matter. You also need language to articulate urban design substance and comparison.

These skills focus not on objects in space, but on the collective question of how space defines a collection of elements that shape communities. The study of architecture, landscape architecture, planning and civil engineering provide technical grounding that is a lifelong pursuit—not merely a collection of degrees.

Urban design makes sense of overlaps, edges and the integration of place-making and place-keeping. Even the social, economic and physical consciences are integrated parts of a progressive urban design process—not separate and isolated pursuits.

The Conductor

The effective urban designer does not play the music; he creates a symphony of many musicians. The accomplished urban designer also leaves his or her ego at the door. In other words, the goal is not self-recognition, but understanding and coordinating many views and perspectives.

Through understanding the technical foundations and languages of urban design, the urban designer works as part of an interdisciplinary team that assembles the various urban design plans that could include land use, mobility, housing, public realm, social programming and economic strategies. The ability to change tracks, translate, comprehend and shape the best directions into a number of options for review is the urban designer’s craft.

The Communicator

Finally, seasoned urban designers need to be able to tell stories that are comprehensive yet comprehensible, and translate those stories for many different audiences with different interests and goals. Political mastery is paramount. The true urban designer is the active listener, yet the presenter of many voices. The ability to touch hearts, inspire, reach out, and take measured risks is at the passionate core of the urban designer. To draw skillfully and create a memorable urban signature, or one that is invisible in its genius, and that transcends time, is the magic of the thoughtful urban designer.

In the end, sometimes courage and selflessness, within measured limits of flexibility, set the resilient urban designer apart. The mastery of urban design is the mastery of mankind’s habitat, which has endless potential.

About the author

Michael von Hausen brings more than 30 years of teaching, training, facilitating and working across North America in the areas of land development planning, finance and urban design. He is president of MVH Urban Planning & Design Inc., an international consulting practice in sensitive land development planning; sustainable urban design; and community partnerships in Canada, the U.S., China, Russia and Mexico. 

In 2012, von Hausen was recognized as an honored member of the Heritage Registry of Who’s Who for Executives and Professionals. His 2013 book, Dynamic Urban Design: A Handbook for Creating Sustainable Communities Worldwide, describes the theory, practice and potential of urban design as a catalyst for sustainable development. In July of 2013, his firm won the international eco-city design competition for Huangshi, China, which will expand the city by 1.1 million residents.

Take a course with Michael von Hausen