Urban Design Software: Five Free Software Tools for Urban Planners

As an urban planner, you know the importance of legibility and comprehensibility in communicating plans for the built environment. Developing an understanding of the tools and techniques of urban design is a crucial benefit to the implementation of effective plans.

Whether you’re a professional in the urban planning field or an urban planning student, learning basic design principles doesn’t require a graphic design degree. Thankfully, there are a number of free software tools available to take your plans to the next level:

1. GIMP 

GNU Image Manipulation Program, commonly known as GIMP, is a raster-based image manipulation software. If you’re familiar with Adobe Photoshop, you will find GIMP to be an effective (and free!) alternative with similar capabilities. In the context of urban design, GIMP is used to edit images, add text to images, and overlay graphic content on maps. Additionally, GIMP offers some great free educational resources and tutorials.

2. SketchUp

SketchUp is an indispensable tool to urban planners and urban designers alike. Unique in its ability to quickly and accurately render 3-dimensional forms, Sketchup provides users with an effective tool to visualize buildings, neighborhoods, and even cities. There are some limitations to the freeware version as opposed to SketchUp Pro, but there are workarounds you can learn in the Urban Design for Planners: Software Tools. What’s more, SketchUp  integrates easily with Google Earth (read on to learn more!).

3. Inkscape 

Inkscape is vector-based, open graphic manipulation tool often used as a counterpart to GIMP. For the urban designer, Inkscape is used to draw and manipulate shapes and lines on maps. Comparable to Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape offers a user-friendly alternative for planners and designers.


QGIS is a free, open source Geographic Information System with powerful capabilities. Compatible with Esri (the industry standard maker of ArcGIS), QGIS is perfect for the planner looking to expand their design capabilities. Use QGIS to view multiple layers of mapped data relative to one another, group locations or elements with sets of criteria, determine distance calculations, examine proximities, and quickly create figure ground maps. QGIS makes it simple to quickly get up to speed with the program with an extremely active support community.

5. Google Earth

Google Earth is a crucial tool that lends itself to a variety of professional applications. Particularly useful to urban planners and urban designers alike is the ability to explore cities from an axonometric view (from the perspective of a low flying plane). Other settings provide the ability to experience a 3D perspective, accurately measure distance, and integrate with GIMP and SketchUp. Beyond these practical aspects, the potential to explore cities and landscapes around the world makes Google Earth a ground-breaking resource.


Ready to learn more? Watch Online Urban Design Courses