Scale and Urban Design


Aerial view of construction site

Site Planning

A site plan shows the existing and proposed conditions of the lot, including: topography, vegetation, drainage, floodplains, waterways, open spaces, walkways, means of ingress and egress, utility services, landscaping, proposed structures and signs, lighting, screening devices, and other information.

Each project location will likely have positives and negatives. Therefore, site planning is key to balancing or mitigating the impacts of a proposed project. Site planning analysis is informed by local and regional planning guidelines such as zoning ordinances, neighborhood-specific plans, community vision statements, and other references.

The review should consider whether the proposed design will address all the goals identified in the environmental assessment’s statement of purpose and need. The environmental assessment should evaluate the impact of the development identified in the site plan on the existing features of the existing natural environment and the community. Additionally, the assessment should evaluate the expected impacts of climate change on the proposed site location.

View of waterfront city

Scale and Urban Design

Architecture and urban planning consider whether the site plan is in keeping with the surrounding built environment, in terms of scale, density, size, and mass. It also determines whether the design responds to the architectural needs of residents and the community and surrounding architectural styles.

The traditional professionals that are involved in creating a development plan, such as project architects, should be leveraged for their ability to design buildings and spaces that respond to the aesthetic, cultural, and social needs of future site occupants and the surrounding community. Responsible entities should encourage these professionals to adopt environmentally resilient designs, when appropriate.

To the extent they are available, the review should obtain early designs and the input of architectural or urban planning professionals and evaluate the impact of plans in the context of existing site and community conditions.

Tree with red flowers in park setting

Visual Quality

Visual quality is the impact of the project on the visual character of its surroundings and ultimately, on the residents, users, and/or visitors of the project.

Visual quality derives from the way elements of the natural and built environments relate to each other to create a sense of harmony. Ideally, the overall effect of these elements is to give the viewers a sense of orientation and comprehension, and to enable the viewers to orient themselves in the area.

The built environment includes the surrounding buildings and streets. The following all add to the character of the area:

  • Building types
  • Building styles
  • Materials
  • Colors
  • Shapes
  • Sizes
  • Facades
  • Details
  • Density

Their placements in relation to the street and to each other can help provide a sense of harmony or create interesting skylines and views.

Streets and streetscapes are other major components of the built environment. Variables include:

  • Size
  • Width
  • Paving and curb materials
  • Lighting fixtures
  • Signs
  • Street furniture (such as benches)

The vitality of activity strongly affects the character of an area. Projects that are closed, windowless, or undifferentiated at the sidewalk level may seriously mar the public perception of the safety and livability of the surrounding area.

The natural environment includes the natural contours of the:

  • Land
  • Bodies of water
  • Vistas of the sky
  • Trees and plants

These contours provide contrast to the built environment and create visual interest.

Any kind of physical construction affects the natural elements. Construction that is not adapted to the contours of the land is out of character with the site. Buildings that block views or cast shadows, cut-and-fill operations that ignore natural contours, the filling of wetlands, and the removal of trees and vegetation are other examples of site-use insensitivity.

Important Considerations

  1. How will the project alter the landform? Will the project demonstrably destroy or alter the natural or man-made environment? For example, will there be clearance of trees or buildings or alteration of the geomorphic form of the land?
  2. How does the project “fit” or conform within the surrounding and established built environment in terms of overall scale, density, size, and mass?
  3. Will there be an intrusion of elements out of character or scale with the existing physical environment?
  4. Does the proposed building represent a significant change in size, scale, placement, or height in relation to neighboring structures in an inappropriate manner?
  5. Does the project affect building density in the community?
  6. Are the changes resulting from any induced development regarded by the community as beneficial or negative?
  7. How does the project’s design relate to the context of its surroundings?
  8. Are levels of activity reduced or detrimentally increased? Does the project enhance street-level activity and community interaction?
  9. Is signage and street furniture in character with existing architectural styles? Does it differ in materials, color, or style from its neighbors in an inappropriate manner?
  10. Does the project conform to locally adopted design guidelines?
  11. Can beneficial or mitigating elements (e.g., street trees and cool pavements to limit urban heat islands) be added?

Analysis Techniques

Examine the visual impact of the project to determine if it is a good fit for the surrounding area. If your project involves a building, assess whether it will block or degrade views or become the focal point. Are the size, design, materials, and siting of the building or buildings compatible with surrounding buildings? (Keep in mind that buildings which do not copy their neighbors’ materials or design are not necessarily incompatible.)

Resources to Reference/Experts to Contact

  • City Architect, Urban Design Staff
  • Local American Institute of Architects, American Society of Landscape Architects, or American Planning Association
  • Local Conservation and Historic Commissions