Urban Design Centers and Healthier Communities

Sign to San Antonio City Design CenterAbout a year and a half ago I left California to come to Texas. After spending over 25 years as an urban designer in the GoldenState, it was time to pack up and go. The writing was on the wall prior to my leaving in 2011. The end of Redevelopment to balance the State budget was the final blow. Redevelopment agencies were the primary clients for private sector urban designers. A bad economy and shrinking city budgets was manifested in the downsizing or elimination of planning departments. This left consulting firms fighting for a shrinking piece of the planning/urban design pie. Things were going to get ugly fast. Maybe I could learn to write Climate Action Plans. Just kidding. Where could an old urban designer find employment?


Admittedly, most Californians do not think of Texas as a hotbed of urban design, and I was no exception. In actuality, cities like Dallas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio care much more about urban design than I thought possible. Texans are incredibly proud of what they have here, and rightfully so. I came to Texas not having a full understanding of the legacy of urban design in the LoneStarState. I learned fast.  After being here for about a year, I was given the opportunity to manage the City of San Antonio’s CityDesignCenter. You know, the city with the famous Riverwalk and the Alamo? What self respecting urban designer could turn down that opportunity?  CityDesignCenter would still be part of the Planning and Community Development Department, but it would have its own clear identity and a work program centered around elevating the quality of urban design across the City, not just downtown. Everywhere.

Cities in the USA have typically organized their urban design functions within their planning departments as part of the development review process. In recent years there seems to be a desire to elevate urban design activities beyond the review of site plans and architectural reviews. Giving these departments their own identities is something that I see as a growing trend. I believe there are a few reasons for this. First is the public’s concern for better, more contextual design. The public is not crazy about global franchise architecture any longer (think Big Box stores and too many Starbucks on every corner). As we emerge from the recession, our communities want to take more time to consider how their neighborhoods and corridors look and function. We all want a better place and placemaking is at the heart of urban design. We all want a place that will transcend time.

Next, there is a national movement to improve the quality of our urban lives. Walking and bicycling are not trends; they are becoming a healthy lifestyle choice for many of us. Our health depends on the quality of urban design.  Health and fitness have become an obsession in San Antonio.  The Mayor and City Manger are leaders in the charge to counter comments from folks like Charles Barkley who commented on the size of our citizens. Charles better stay on his own diet and worry about his own waistline because San Antonio is getting thinner and healthier without his help. To accomplish this healthier goal, our city is placing a higher value on the quality of urban design and how it can help us all become healthier human beings. From the quality of our complete streets, to our urban lofts, to the extension of our Riverwalk, San Antonio has the political and economic will to elevate urban design to its rightful place in city building. Are City Design Centers here to stay? Should cities like San Diego look back and see how much good the City Architects office did? I feel urban design centers will become as necessary for our public health as climate change and sustainability has become key components in our every day planning lives.

I have been able to identify 33 urban design departments in public institutions. There are probably more and I want to find out about them and what they are doing. They are:

City of Raleigh Urban DesignCenter

Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative

Nashville Civic DesignCenter

Arlington, TX Urban DesignCenter


Kansas CityDesignCenter

University of CincinnatiCommunityDesignCenter


University of Miami Center for Urban and Community Design

Tulane Regional Urban DesignCenter

University of MinnesotaMetropolitanDesignCenter


 Charleston, SC – Urban Design & Preservation Division

Los Angeles, CA – Department of City Planning Urban Design Studio

Nashville, TN – Urban Design Studio

Columbus, OH – Urban Design Section of the Planning Division

Omaha, NE – Urban Design Section of the Planning Department

Cambridge, MA – Zoning, Land Use and Urban Design Program

Baltimore, MD – Land Use and Urban Design Division

Miami, FL – Urban Design Section of the Planning Department

Carmel, IN – Urban Design Initiative

Seattle, WA – CityDesign / Urban Design Division

Madison, WI – Urban Design & Special Project Planning

Gresham, OR – Urban Design & Planning

Philadelphia, PA – Urban Design Division

Des Moines, IA – Planning and Urban Design Division

St. Louis, MO – Planning and Urban Design Agency

Montgomery County, MD – Urban Design Division

Kansas City, MO – Urban Design

Punta Gorda, FL – Urban Design Division

Orlando, FL – Community Planning Studio

Orange County, FL – Urban Design Section

Woodstock, GA – Planning, Design and Sustainability Division





Profile photo of Mark Brodeur About Mark Brodeur

Mark Brodeur’s passion is urban revitalization. During his 30+ years of planning & urban design experience, he has revitalized and re-energized over 200 downtowns, corridors and neighborhoods to success. Since Mark’s first City Planning Director’s post in 1979, he has been helping to set strategies to accomplish each project’s mission and vision. Visioning workshops, one-on-one sessions, cross-discipline task forces, and middle-of- the-night epiphanies were all invoked as appropriate to the success of each project.

He walks the blocks and knows the talk. His background is a purposeful mix of public/private sector urban design experience. Mark has always been an advocate for urban regeneration and is continuously challenging the issue of suburban sprawl. He frequently points to urban revitalization as the most valid type of “urban sustainability.”

Mark is currently the Executive Manager of the City of San Antonio’s CityDesignCenter. The mission of the Design Center is to promote high quality urban design throughout the City. Good urban design is essential in protecting San Antonio’s well-established sense of place and economic position. The CityDesignCenter develops the benchmarks for better design that will protect the form and functions of San Antonio’s most treasured assets. Through a process of cooperation and collaboration, Mark hopes to inspire the design community to raise the bar and to bring a higher standard and value to this beautiful City.

In his spare time, Mark serves on AIA’s Sustainable Design Assessment Team and most recently served as the President of the California Downtown Association.


  1. Excellent.
    Thanks for posting.
    Sounds like you have found a place to be effective once again, and hopefully fulfilled as well – best of luck.

    Do you see the possibility of similar movement within other design fields towards urban design centers/departments?
    Speaking as someone trained as an architect and with 17 years experience in the field, I reached my limit of being able to focus solely on the building years ago, especially after two years working on reconstruction in a dense urban neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
    If you see a need and not a trend, what opportunities might exist for folks from other professions – architecture, landscape architecture, civil engineering, for example – to take real, meaningful part in adding to the full picture of urban design and urban planning in U.S. cities?

  2. There is the Durham Urban Innovation Center (DUIC) in Durham, NC!


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