Making Up Ground: Urban Design Elements Part 1

Posted on April 28, 2017

Making Up Ground is a series written by Harrison Wicks which focuses on urban design history, theory, and implementation in American cities over the past century.

Urban Design Elements: Blocks, Edges and Gateways

Last week we identified the multiple urban design movements of the past century and highlighted their utility as a solution to the problems of their day. Just as one movement subsequently replaced its predecessor, urban design was and still is an evolving practice, demonstrating the prevailing essence that embodies the current time. Today we are going to talk about three essential elements of urban design that includes a brief analysis of city blocks, edges, and gateways.

First, the city block. The block has been a basic element of urbanism since the beginning of cities. When we previously discussed the history of urban design in our series entry #1, ancient Greek cities were structured on a grid system that utilized the block. Fast forward to colonial North America, immigrants settling in the United States brought with them the grid pattern techniques to building cities similar to Europe and before.

In general, a city block is an area that is surrounded by streets on all sides and forms the basic unit of a city’s urban fabric. A key to understanding the block structure is to understand that there are many iterations- small blocks, grid blocks, ambiguous blocks, interlocking blocks, super blocks, and even megablocks. These terms indicate a changing capacity and scale of urban form. A wonderful episode completed by the 99 Percent Invisible podcast highlights the variety of block sizes throughout the United States and goes in depth with Salt Lake City’s Plat of Zion. Seriously, check this episode out!

Salt Lake City, UT

Due to the variation in block size, sentiments and perceptions of city blocks are unique. For instance, a common observation about New York City is that due to the rectangular shape of its blocks it makes walking cross town seem like a more strenuous task because it takes longer to reach the next block while walking uptown or downtown seems to pass by more quickly. Additionally, the rectangular block may restrict economic development in that businesses located on the streets have a perceived harder time succeeding because fewer pedestrians walk down them as opposed to on the avenues.

Second, the city’s edge. A city always has defined edges. Historically, a defensive wall or barrier has defined the city edge, but in the modern urban setting the term edge occurs in many forms.  Some are clearly defined, such as those that occur along water edges, or a change in building density and size.  Some edges are blurred, such as those that may occur from one side of a street to another, and only distinguishable by a change in possible street fabric or building style. Some edges are branching and occurs when the city follows the geography, i.e. a town situated in a series of small, connected valleys, or the property lines do not follow a grid pattern.

Today we are going to focus on two types of edge conditions. To begin, the clear defined edge typically occurs when there is a change in massing, height, and/or geography.  Manhattan is an example of all three.  It is dense with large skyscrapers, and being an island has a clearly defined edge with water on all sides.

Next the blurred edge occurs when there is a change in building style from one block to the next. This is commonly seen in urban renewal projects in which modern buildings and block structures are placed next to older urban fabric that may have used an older form of the grid system or utilized a previous building style. A blurred edge can also be interpreted to mean the lack of a defined border or boundary between cities. In a metropolitan area such as Los Angeles, Chicago, or Dallas the city’s borders with neighboring suburbs can be difficult to realize as one locality can seem to blend seamlessly into another. In many cases, cities have placed identity signage on their borders to establish a differentiation or gateway into their jurisdiction and we will talk about this next.

Third, the city’s gateway. All cities have some form of entrance or vantage point that occurs at its edge. It is important to recognize that a gateway can mean both a physical entrance demarcating a border and a vantage, or observation, point that reveals the city to travelers. In the past this physical entrance tended to be heavily protected and in the form of a gate in the city wall. As for a vantage point, travelers trying to reach the city may crest a hill and have a complete view of the entire area.

Today the gateway or entrance of a city has been adapted to fit a car-centric society. A gateway may be crossing a bridge, most notably Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  In other instances a gateway may be via the interstate highway system entering a city.

Dallas, TX

A common sight when entering a gateway is a city’s identity signage, or welcome sign. These signs and messages are designed to mark a boundary of a locality but may also attempt to highlight the community’s values and promote economic development.

Visitors may make assumptions on the prosperity of a city depending on the quality of its gateway. If a city has a sign that is well-designed and welcoming, it may give the impression of success and wellness of its residents. Conversely, a town with no sign at all may not leave much of an impression.

Below is a selection of welcome signs for your enjoyment:



Please share your own city’s gateway and/or welcome sign. What do you think it conveys about your city?

Urban design weaves together these elements, and many more, into a coherent, organized design structure. It is important for local government professionals to realize the importance of urban design, after all these elements influence how we interact with each other and the environment. Next week we will discuss three additional elements of urban design: Public Space, Transportation, and Landscape.

Urban design is about making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric.

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