Urban Design

Kate Orff

Director, Urban Design

The Urban Design Program is focused on the city as an agent of sustainable development and the role of design in redefining the 21st century urban landscape. The program is advancing new paradigms of research, practice and pedagogy to meet the urgent challenges of rapid urbanization, the increasing threats of climate change and societal inequity.

Climate change has been called a “wicked problem” presenting a long-term, complex challenge to reset energy paradigms in order to reduce greenhouse gases. At the same time, urgent short-term action is needed to prevent catastrophic and irreparable changes to planetary ecosystems. Therefore the program pairs an approach of sustained, thoughtful research into urban form with a more immediate, activist focus on available tools for change at specific sites and in partnership with communities. 

Students and faculty work together over a series of three intensive semesters to weave a multi-scalar analysis of urban fabrics and infrastructures with an on-the ground, detailed look at sites and lived conditions. The importance of urban design lies at the intersection of these two spheres, combining larger systems strategies and built form with interventions that integrate culturally with human scale spaces.

The program, building out from Jean Gottmann’s observations in Megalopolis (1961), widens the aperture of our understanding of the city from one defined as a ”tightly settled unit” toward a gradient of urban, rural and suburban landscapes supported by broader networks of food, energy, resource consumption, and transportation. In this pursuit, our home, New York City serves as a primary initial case study for a design methodology, expanding in the final semester to investigate emerging global capitals and agglomerations in Asia, Africa, and South America among other places. The program explores the risks and benefits of alternatively “top-down” and “bottom-up” initiatives, advocating for inclusive techniques that address social inequalities and environmental degradation toward a just, sustainable future.

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