Landscape design: urban

provided by Simon Bell: Senior Research Fellow, OPENspace Research Centre


What, Why, When, How, Extras


What is it?

Figure 1

Princes Street Gardens provide many benefits to the urban landscape of Edinburgh. 

The space all around and between buildings, ranging from streets and squares to parks, gardens, urban woods, stream corridors, cemeteries and many other types of green space is an important part of the green infrastructure of a city, as important for sustainability as transport, services and energy infrastructure. Urban landscape is not necessarily green but it frequently incorporates a range of green elements such as grass, ground covers, shrubs and trees, all of which perform many functions such as shelter, cooling or shading, air cleaning by filtering pollutants, aesthetic value, places for people to congregate and use for a range of activities and as habitat for urban wildlife. 




Why use it?

An urban environment without well-designed public outdoor spaces or green landscape elements is sterile, unattractive and uncomfortable, whatever the merits of the architecture of the vicinity. Spaces are vital to set off the buildings and the need for external, accessible circulation space enhances the functionality of the built forms of an urban area. However, because of the many environmental benefits as noted above, the landscape can perform an important role in micro-climate amelioration, reducing the need for air conditioning, improving infiltration of storm water, providing shelter and so reduce the need for heating and in general reducing the urban heat island effect. Thus, urban design without a proper consideration of the landscape at all scales is missing a key element without which it will not function properly.


When to use it?

Landscape design is a core requirement in any building project or urban design and cannot be seen as a kind of add on to the architecture. In particular, when sustainable architecture needs to reduce energy consumption, to provide better ecological values and to make the outdoors accessible, attractive, free from pollution and pedestrian friendly the skills of a landscape architect are needed. Even the most densely built up urban environments can benefit from some vegetation, from good surfaces and improved accessibility. Thus it is not an option to ignore landscape design any more than any other infrastructure. 


How to use it?

Key points:


  • Who will use the spaces around the buildings and for what purposes? Make it as pedestrian friendly and universally accessible as possible.
  • Is there a need for improving shelter and to reduce turbulence caused by the buildings, so that trees to improve the wind climate should be considered
  • Is shade an issue? Consider how trees can be used to create shade and to reduce the need for air conditioning.
  • Consider how the amount of sealed surface and therefore of glare and run-off after rainfall can be reduced using grass, trees or other planting as well as sustainable urban drainage schemes
  • How can plants be used to break up and soften the visual impact of unattractive building facades and consider the use of climbers on blank walls
  • Consider how small patches of urban nature can attract wildlife and reflect the changing seasons, connecting people with nature even in the most urban environments.
  • Be aware of how natural elements can help reduce the stresses of working in urban environments and help workers to restore themselves during lunchtimes, for example. 

People choose shady places to sit if they can, and the trees cool the air through evapotranspiration.



A small grassy area in a city centre provides a honeypot for people to relax and get some sun.



Design procedure:


  • Step 1: Survey the kinds of spaces which exist in the area around the development and beyond, considering how people use them for movement (desire lines etc) and look for places where pedestrian areas and car free zones can be established. Consider the options for avoiding or removing sealed surfaces in places where circulation is not needed.
  • Step 2: Survey the existing routes of services in order to identify places where planting might be possible. Some services could be rerouted during development in order to provide more possibilities for plants, especially trees. This is especially important in streets.
  • Step 3: Analyse the microclimate around the site, looking for places where shelter and shade might be beneficial. Monitoring an area over the course of several months would show where wind is a problem, for example. Plants at different heights are needed to optimise the shelter/shade potential.
  • Step 4: Analyse slopes and changes in level both for drainage (to establish sustainable urban drainage) and for inclusive access (slopes and steps should be avoided).
  • Step 5: Consider the types of plants that might be included – grass, ground covers, shrubs, trees etc, and the kinds of functions they might perform according to the evaluation of the site and its environs. The choice of species of varieties will need careful thought as not all are suitable for urban environments.
  • Step 6: Develop design ideas which optimise the people friendly opportunities of a place and also the role green elements can play while relating these to the character and structure of the built environment.


Zoom in with views

A series of diagrams prepared by rankinfraser as part of the Speirs Lock Masterplan 2008 outlining how an analysis of the relationship between topography and view points can be used to determine building heights and locations for 'high rise' developments. (Click images to enlarge) 




1. Identify important landmarks.



Views out

2. Identify important view cones out.



Views in

3. Identify important view cones in.




'Low-rise' zones

4. Identify 'low rise' zones.



Development zones

5. Identify zones where higher development is possible.


Higher buildings

6. Locate higher buildings.



Related strategies 

Site planning Landscape design: rural Micro-climate
Rainwater catchment Site planting Inclusive design


Take this further

  • Blake, J., 1998, Introduction to landscape design and construction, Gower Publishing, Brookfield.
  • Brown, R.D. & T.J. Gillespie, 1995, Microclimatic landscape design, Wiley, New York.
  • Cooper Marcus, C. & C. Francis (Ed.), 1997, People places, Wiley & Sons, Ontario.
  • Cullen, G., 1994, The concise townscape, Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington.
  • Dunnett, N. & J. Hitchmough (Ed.), 2004, The dynamic landscape, Sponpress, London.
  • Francis, M., 2003, Urban open space, Island press, Washington DC.
  • Gehl, J. & Lars, G., 2000, New city spaces, The Danish Architectural press, Copenhagen.
  • Hough, M., 2004, Cities and natural process as basis for sustainability, Routledge, London.
  • Jacobs, A.B., 1993, Great streets, The MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Laurie. M. & Laurie, A., 2002, An introduction to landscape architecture, Pearson Professional Education.
  • Motloch, J.L., 2001, Introduction to landscape design, John Wiley, New York.
  • Moughtin, J.C., 2003, Urban design - street and square, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.
  • Turner, T., 2000, City as landscape, E and FN Spon, London.
  • Woolley, H., 2003, Urban open spaces, Taylor & Francis, London.

Case studies