How Urban Landscape Design Works

Alexandre Gusmao Square and other office buildings, with city park in foreground.
Alexandre Gusmao Square and other office buildings, with city park in foreground. See more pictures of famous gardens.
Juan Silva/The Image Bank/Getty Images

We've all seen an overgrown, ugly, garbage-filled, vacant city lot at some point in our lives. These hulking eyesores can make the loveliest of neighborho­ods look unkempt and even unsafe. But it's nothing a little urban landscape design can't fix.

Urban landscape design is the act of taking a piece of land, no matter how big, and analyzing, evaluating and beautifying it. All the while, designers must focus on maintaining or increasing functionality and usability for humans and our animal counterparts in a cost effective manner. This is not a simple task. Urban landscape design mixes the talents of architects, surveyors, landscape designers, horticulturalists and conservationists. They all work together to create a space that solves a problem, enh­ances the surroundings and improves or maintains natural surroundings, including waterways.


­Urban landscape design is all about planning. The base plan allows the designers and project owners to discover any problem areas, and to begin deciding on the design procedure. Then the landscape spaces are visualized with concept plans. These plans are used to help visualize placement, topography and borders [source: UM: Concept Plans and Lines].

Preliminary designs (also known as draft designs) are use­d to decide where plants, trees and shrubs are placed, and how the plantings will relate to the climate, sun exposure, existing trees and current structures. Drafting leads to the implementation of landscaping. Hardscape features, such as fencing, arbors, gazebos and buildings are added with dimensions. Plant locations and beds are defined and the entire area starts to come to life.

Daydreaming yet? Want to take a crack at urban landscape design? In this article, we'll discuss project restrictions, planning and features. Read on to learn how to beautify your neighborhood.



Urban Landscape Design Restrictions

Before starting an urban landscape design project, you will need to examine the restrictions imposed by state and local governments, as well as project owners. Restrictions and ordinances detail the rules of implementation, and to what degree changes can be made at a particular site. Water is a big issue, and many architectural plans have restrictions related to water usage, aquatic vegetation, sand or beaches, erosion control, boat ramps and terrestrial vegetation. There are also rules about distance to water sources and how land around a body of water can be used or changed [source: Charboneau].

Another aspect of landscape design is element restrictions. Element restrictions identify the type of plants, trees, shrubs, soil, turf and grass that should be used in a specific locale. Some locations will require the use of only native species, while others will require use of only low-water plants, shrubs and trees.


Once you get past the state regulations, you need to check out zoning laws. Local zoning regulations dictate how a design can be implemented. Though zoning rules will be different for every state, some of the regulations you might face are:

  • Erosion control
  • Fence placement, maintenance, materials, and height
  • Fertilizer (phosphorus) application and use
  • Location and property line
  • Drainage for storm water
  • Wood structures and decking
  • Irrigation
  • Retaining walls, or riprap
  • Structure removal [source: Elsen]

Restrictions can be a pain, but they're in place to ensure sustainable and safe urban landscape design. Protecting natural resources, helping to ensure public safety and usability, as well as regulating erection and deconstruction of buildings and structures helps create better living conditions for the present and the future.

Still with us? Don't be intimidated. Once you get past the regulations, urban landscape design can be extremely rewarding. Read on to start planning.


Urban Landscape Planning

Urban landscape planning starts with a base plan that is created using in-depth information about the site. The process generally incorporates six individual steps: [source: Sulis]

1. During the interview or needs assessment, you define budget, area use, maintenance, labor costs and tools needed to implement and maintain the landscape. You'll also define soil and drainage issues, utility placements, lighting, general types of foundation plantings and preferred horticulture, as well as rock and mulch preferences [source: UM].


2. The site survey is used to identify current buildings and structures, such as walls, sidewalks, fences and topographical elements, such as water, hills and woods. It can identify suitable or poor/non-drainage areas, soil conditions and needed corrections, current vegetation and turf/grasses, including whether or not they can be used, removed or resituated. Finally, it identifies how climate and sunlight will affect plant selection and any trouble spots that will need windbreaks, noise barriers or beautification [source: UM].

3. The site analysis incorporates all the information gathered in the interview and site survey. It's used for evaluating the area and specifying the problem areas and beneficial areas. The analysis visually depicts the area by sketch and incorporates all those notes participants have been adding in on the sly [source: UM].

4. The plot plan is a to-scale drawing that shows bearing, distance, structures, building property lines and ways originally located on the lot, drainage flow and elevations. The plot plan can generally be found at your local county courthouse [source: UM].

5. The site plan is an updated plot plan, incorporating any new buildings, structures or changes in the lay of the land, as well as the placement of utilities [source: UM].

6. The structure and utility blueprints are very important when creating the landscape design. They note utility placements and architectural layouts of any existing structures. You can find these blueprints at your city office, or from the original builder [source: UM].

After all this technical talk, isn't it time for a little fun? Read on to learn about the exciting features of urban landscape design.


Urban Landscape Features

What's that over there? An ugly city lot? We can beautify it.

Urban landscapes today feature spaces that focus on preserving natural resources while creating environments that are inviting to human and wildlife populations. This is especially important in this time of global change. Urban landscapes must be designed to meet the needs of today and the growth of tomorrow.


Urban landscape features include the preservation, restoration and the creation of:

  • Parks
  • Nature centers
  • Recreational areas
  • Wildlife refuges [source: City of Tucson]

Urban landscapes are also concerned with maintaining and increasing watershed health and viability, sustaining forested and agricultural lands and promoting safer drinking water [source: City of Tucson].

  • Urban landscapes often feature:
  • Modern art
  • Old spaces made new, usable and accessible
  • Songbird havens
  • Best practices tying together water management and horticulture
  • Maintainability through planning and design
  • Integrated pest management and plant health care [source: City of Tucson]

By incorporating nature into urban areas, we not only beautify our surroundings, we create areas where we can get back in touch with nature, benefit wildlife and provide a healthier atmosphere for generations to come.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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  • City of Tucson. "Urban Landscape Framework." Department of Urban Planning and Design. 03/04/08. (Accessed: 11/21/08)
  • CNN. "Porch collapse kills 12 at Chicago party." 06/30/03. (Accessed 11/21/08)
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  • University of Minnesota. "Plot Plans." Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series. (Accessed 11/21/08)
  • University of Minnesota. "The Interview, Asking the Right Questions." Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series. (Accessed 11/21/08)
  • University of Minnesota. "The Site Analysis." Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series. (Accessed 11/21/08)
  • University of Minnesota. "The Site Plan." Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series. (Accessed 11/21/08)
  • University of Minnesota. "The Site Survey." Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series. (Accessed 11/21/08)
  • University of Minnesota. "The Base Plan." Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series. (Accessed 11/21/08)