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The benchmark for sound urban design and planning is to understand how future development, land use, traffic and public transportation will affect and transform a community. The decisions municipalities make on these complex and often competing forces will have a dramatic impact on the future of any community. It is in understanding these issues that urban design and planning professionals can provide municipalities with the appropriate guidelines that meet today’s needs while allowing for positive growth in the future.

Planners help municipalities by providing the appropriate guidelines that keep mixed-use communities and large urban areas operating smoothly. When the appropriate principles and guidance are not applied to a project, neighborhood, or community, the problems that arise can be far reaching and long lasting.

To create effective and memorable places, there are a number of urban design principles that are employed. Design professionals consider every detail in understanding what makes certain places more memorable and more successful than others. Urban design and planning professionals are trained to look not only at individual buildings and thoroughfares, but to understand how groups of buildings work together and how the spaces between those building create memorable and usable places.

In general, our communities and neighborhoods are becoming more urban. A multi-disciplinary firm, such as DMR Architects, can create communities with a mixture of retail, residential, commercial, office and public transportation, creating a more sustainable, human environment. Building in retail shops and transit sites can also reduce the length of your commute. It harkens back to a time when people lived, worked and socialized in the same area. This type of planning allows individuals to spend more time with their families and friends and less time in their cars.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Northeast, particularly in Northern New Jersey, where municipalities once considered to be suburban outposts of New York are now becoming cities in their own right. The sheer number of people in these areas makes them urban, but a greater emphasis is also being placed on multiple levels of use–having office and/or residential space over retail establishments, for example. The principles that govern the use of space become even more important in an urban environment. Municipalities are working hard to incorporate these principles into their plans, creating more pedestrian-friendly environments, with an emphasis on developing newer residential communities in the urban core that supports both existing and future retail.

This transformation from suburban to urban creates a unique set of challenges. Where once people relied solely on their cars to get from “point A to point B,” greater density requires a greater commitment to public transportation and walkable space. Urban designers need to consider how people behave in these environments–the places that are most in demand allow people to walk to work or go out for a cup of coffee–so they can plan for those places appropriately.

Urban design is based on density, which places a greater emphasis on the relationship among spaces compared with sprawl, the traditional means of squeezing more people, stores and offices into a city’s boundaries. There are certain land uses that just don’t work well together and as general rule, urban planners strive to have similar uses fronting each other. A row of retail stores on one side of Main Street should face another row of retail stores.

While the general public might not understand the intricacies of sound urban design, they can certainly appreciate it. Cities like Portland, OR; Charlotte, NC; and Austin, TX have been designed with these principles and are attracting more people than cities designed using a model of sprawl. As today’s population continues to move back into cities that offer an 18- to 24-hour lifestyle with the convenience and mixture of residential, retail, commercial and office uses, it’s up to urban design and planning professionals to promote sustainable human environments that can grow into the future. The building blocks of those spaces are sound planning principles.

Francis Reiner is senior urban designer and landscape architect at DMR Architects in Hasbrouck Heights. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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