8 Urban Design Buzzwords to Know

From densification to woonerf – a guide to urban planning jargon.


Designing urban spaces is a complicated business. It’s no wonder, then, that it comes with its own brand of complicated language. Here’s a handy guide to help you understand some of the most common buzzwords used in urban design currently.

1.) Urbanism

Urbanism is the broad term referring to the study of how people live and interact with the built environment in cities or towns. Sometimes it’s used interchangeably with “urban planning.”

2.) Tactical Urbanism

A narrower and more specific variant of urbanism is tactical urbanism, which describes quick, temporary interventions that seek to improve neighbourhoods or common gathering places through grassroots initiatives. Some great examples are guerilla urban gardens, pop-up festivals or temporary public art installations. Remember the mysterious benches appearing outside of Calgary businesses?

Learn more from City Lab’s comprehensive guide to Tactical Urbanism.

3.) Placemaking

A term that originated in the 1960s but has gained prominence recently is “placemaking”. Defined as an approach to urban design that foregrounds the health, happiness and experiences of people in public spaces, placemaking is a movement that seeks to strengthen the connection between people and the urban environment.

In Calgary, a recent example of placemaking design principles would be the on-going redevelopment occurring in the East Village.

4.) Woonerf

An offshoot of the Placemaking philosophy is “woonerf”​, or “living street”. Originating in the Netherlands, woonerf refers to a collection of tactics aimed at making streets more pedestrian friendly and multi-purpose, rather than just thoroughfares for automobiles.

In the US and Canada, this concept has been translated into “complete streets”, where traffic calming, lowered speed limits and increased accessibility are employed to give equal priority to walking, biking and driving. 

You can read the City of Calgary’s Complete Streets Policy here.

5.) Urban Metabolism

Urban metabolism is a model describing an urban area’s material and energy flows. This kind of analysis helps us understand a city’s energy consumption, production, efficiency and sustainability.

For a more in-depth explanation, see our previous article on the subject.

6.) Densification

Often used instead of the full term “planned densification”, this concept refers to planning or design aimed at increasing population density in key urban areas.

Increasing density can often have positive side effects of limiting urban sprawl, reducing energy consumption and promoting alternative modes of transportation. However, densification has to be balanced and managed against issues like land availability, real estate costs and policy challenges.

7.) Biophilic Design

Based on the idea that people have an innate connection to nature, “biophilic design” more fully integrates things like trees, vegetation, water and natural light into modern cities and living spaces.

We described biophilic design and its potential benefits in this article previously.


An acronym that stands for “not in my backyard”, NIMBY is the tendency for people to oppose certain developments near their home or in their neighbourhood, even if they might consider them socially beneficial in general. Usually this fear is based on perceived quality of life or property value concerns.

Developments that are often challenged by NIMBYism range widely, including everything from industrial parks and landfills to highways and airports.

April 16th, 2015
Updated: September 14th, 2017

Clarifying some of the most popular new urbanism terms.