Good Urban Design is Both Attractive and Useful

From 2003 - 2013, Brian Peterson was an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He relocated from Chicago to Chapel Hill in 2019.


By Fraser Sherman

Good urban design means more than just making the streets look pretty, Brian Peterson says.

“It’s looking at the big picture in place-making,” Peterson, Chapel Hill’s Urban Designer, told The Local Reporter, “finding a way to make public spaces in the public realm more interesting and comfortable to be in.” He said that could include giving design input on parks, new developments, stormwater-retention ponds, or green space, depending on the day’s needs.

The Art Career Project says urban design has been around as long as humans have built homes. It wasn’t until the last century, however, that “urban design” was coined to describe a skill set that combines city planning, landscape design and architecture.

The scope of urban design can stretch to tackle an entire cityscape. Alternatively, design projects may focus on ground-level details: streets, landscaping, transportation, parks, and street furniture such as benches, trash cans or street signs. Good design is useful and attractive; good-looking street signs that aren’t easy to read would be an example of bad design.

Peterson says his profession “deals primarily with groupings of buildings, urban and open spaces: plazas, parks, greens, streetscapes. It does dive into architecture in the sense that it looks at the building not just as an object or a thing but part of a street.”

For example, Peterson said, while stormwater retention systems are tools to control flooding, they can also become amenities — ponds or part of a greenscape, say — if they’re well designed. “I try to think of these facilities as something that’s not forgotten about, so they’re integral to our communities,” he said.

Peterson said he started out as an architect but a number of the architecture firms he worked for tackled large-scale projects such as designing a neighborhood or designing a waterfront. Working on such projects as part of an interdisciplinary team showed him how the different specialties overlapped: if architects didn’t have a design solution, engineers might.

“I had to learn how to work with them for all of us to solve the issue at hand,” he said. “I kind of drifted into the bigger picture.”

Peterson said back in 2019 he’d been looking for an urban design job when he spotted an online ad for the Town of Chapel Hill position. He applied, got the job, relocated, and loves it: “I enjoy when I can come up with an idea that solves the problem and makes it look beautiful as well.”

As the Chapel Hill Urban Designer, Peterson said, he’s one of many people on staff who look over development submissions. It’s not mandatory that developers ask him to review their projects, but if they do he can steer them in a direction compatible with the city’s development goals. Ideally, he says, he gets to give input “at the point changes can be made without heels being dug in.”

Peterson also works in-house, helping on design for parks and streets. He said, for example, that when the city’s Parks and Recreation Department prepared to build a fence around the Gene Strowd Rose Garden this year, they asked Peterson for ideas on making the fence and the new entrance gate both practical and attractive.

Peterson has also provided input on the ongoing renovation of University Place, working with the developer to “maximize outdoor spaces and make them open to the community and as interesting as possible.”

Overall, he said, urban design “is making sure we have places that are acceptable, open to everyone, that are comfortable, that are welcoming to folks, truly places that people want to be. Not just that they look good. Many folks think architecture and design are about how something looks but it’s more than that.”

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.

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