Architectural Terminology – The Urban Design Vocabulary

I’ll admit it, I throw around Architectural terminology with the best of them. Especially when it comes to “Urban Design”. I can’t order a coffee without commenting on the vernacular nature of the locally roasted beans and the sense of place established by the “take a penny leave a penny” bowl next to the cash register. “Take a penny, leave a penny” also describes my marketing plan, but that’s another post….

Anyway, urban design terminology is a special sub-set level of an elite verbal nonsense within the pantheon of Architectural hyperbole. It’s like the local heritage museum branch of angst-ridden verbal articulaxitivation. Imagine an architect, wearing a black turtleneck. Now have him pull on a tweed coat with patches on the elbows. Now ask him about High-speed rail, and these are the words he’ll use:

Authentic – Having to do with anything the Architect believes is more important than the crap everyone else in his/her profession is producing.

Compatibility – the ability to blend into one’s surroundings while still being better than everything around you.

Vernacular – dirty

Focal Point – the element on axis with an important vista, usually a fire department connection.

Heritage – old and dirty, and having been done longer than we can remember (kind of like Cher).

Infill – the act of removing delapitated buildings and replacing them with condominiums to be sold to affluent homosexuals.

Mixed-use – where-in the residents complain about the smells and noise from the restaurant and the restaurant patrons look up at the ceiling whenever the residents flush their toilet.

Pedestrian oriented – Buildings that allow people to approach on foot, while parking somewhere in the rear.

Preservation – allocating additional funding, by means of government grants and tax increment financing to leverage nostalgia and guilt  to save non-functional buildings that bitter people value.

Public Realm – anything outside of your house, except for Walmart.

Sense of Place – That funny feeling of being watched by a 16 year old holding a skateboard and an energy drink.

Streetscape – Popular city sponsored improvement projects involving very small trees and 19th century reproduction lighting.

In Situ – “in place”, from the Greek, meaning “I know a phrase from the Greek”.

Placemaking – The circular drive or “round-about” within a retail / lifestyle center.

Urban design – Getting less for more, while waiting longer for approvals.

New Urbanist – Much like the Hell’s Angels keeping the crowds from jumping at the Rolling Stones, only with a lot more paperwork, and guilt.

Transit Oriented Development – Suburbs within a 10 mile radius of a future planned rail corridor (to be powered by rainbows and biofuel)

Adaptive Re-use – Removing soiled linens and empty colt 45 bottles prior to leasing a building to creative professionals.

Zoning – The act of removing the barriers to creative and thoughtful urban design, by only allowing development patterns covered in the seminars the local planners attended during a conference 5 years ago.

Granted, it’s only the tip of the iceberg, but those terms should get you started on the conversation with the local planners and heritage preservation societies. Once you’ve master these, you should be able to explain to your neighbor why his fence that encroaches on your yard is actually continuing evidence of the systematic weakening of the American dream, and that “this would never happen in Europe”.


and, feel free to add a Urban Design term of your own in the comment section – just in case I missed any.




photos are from eekim’s photostream on Flickr (used under creative commons license)


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