Urban Design Essentials
Part of the Answer is Architectural
The patterns and ideas shown here are part of the answer, yet architecture and urban design is simply one tool. The good news is that design that promotes community is not a task for rocket scientists.
There are many details to observe in cities and in these pictures, but the reader might focus on and consider, above all, the placement of the buildings in relation to the sidewalk.
Simple as it may be, this relationship of the building to the sidewalk is one of the key architectural decisions in city planning for cohesive neighborhoods. This relationship is significant in residential areas but is of supreme importance in commercial areas. Indeed, it is the position of the building with respect to the sidewalk that makes a city.
The good news is that the relationship is a very simple one: place the building at the sidewalk. That's it. Don't make it complicated.
If you question this, consider the places that most people like to go on vacation: New York, Paris, London, Aspen, Carmel, Nantucket, Park City, Friday Harbor, and even Disneyland! Every last one of them is built so that the building comes right up to the sidewalk.
Historically, this is quite understandable. With only human and animal power to move goods, and with market forces in charge, it made sense to bring the building as close to the right-of-way as possible. In fact, often the building would cantilever out over the street in the effort to maximize profit, creating, ironically for modern preservationists, the most charming streets.
Some Developers Know the Rules
People who make ersatz cities also understand that this spatial relationship is central to our sense of being in a city. There is a very interesting tourist attraction at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. It is called City Walk and it is a festival shopping center, a place to shop for things one doesn't need.
Of course it has valet parking wonderfully ironic here which is de rigueur in Los Angeles. It combines both status and security: the uniformed attendants running to-and-fro to fetch cars ensure that anyone else in the garage stands out by their presence alone.
The fascinating thing about City Walk is that its developers understood one essence of city, what brings in the customers: it is buildings that come up to sidewalks where people can stroll and shop safely.
This mall, even more than most malls, has the basic village pattern: the old village sidewalk! While many developers seem to have an aversion to cities, they also recognize that people are drawn to city-like situations and will drive to find them.
Three Crucial Patterns
Three important patterns emerge in these pictures,and their importance cannot be overemphasized; they are the common denominator and leit motiv of comfortable urban spaces. While by themselves insufficient, they are an absolute necessity and precursor to creating communities.
There are unhealthy inner-city neighborhoods that have them and auto-dominated but healthy suburbs that don't. But as a general rule the following patterns are essential to create the human settlements that have any real sense of interpersonal community.
Rule 1 Build to the Sidewalk.
First, notice how these buildings almost always come right up to the sidewalk, which in the vast majority of cases is the property line.
The sidewalk is important because it channels pedestrian movements and forces people into closer proximity where they may bump into each other and act neighborly.
Corollary to Rule 1: Locate the inside floor level as close as possible to the level of the sidewalk outside.
Rule 2 Make the street front permeable.
Notice that these photos always show storefronts that you can see into and out of. Life attracts life.
If you can't see the merchandise for sale or the other patrons mingling, you won't stop to go in. It's a basic rule of retailing and practical urban design the world over. Flaunt it. Don't hide it with a blank wall! Place windows and openings along the sidewalk.
Of course, not only must people be able to see in and out, they must also be able to enter. Therefore put your front doors where they are visible from and directly face the sidewalk. Such opening of the building to the sidewalk is a common denominator of all healthy neighborhoods and potential urban villages.
Corollary to Rule 2: Prohibit mirrored glass or window coverings which block visibility.
Rule 3 Put the parking behind, or under, or above or to the side of the building.
Parking lots are a necessity. But unless you are in high school, or at a tailgate party before a football game, or at a classic car concours d'elegance, parking lots are not the kind of place you want to hang around.
Corollary to Rule 3: Allow on-street parking. Stop-and-go parking is essential to real shopping districts.
It is so ironic, of course: we invest such great money and emotion in our cars and yet we don't want to hang around them in parking lots! Parking lots are crucial but taming them will be one of the crucial parts of piecing-together urban villages.
In an urban village, there are no parking lots along the street front. This is the corollary of the rule that asks for the buildings to be brought to the sidewalk. But since it's so important (and so simple) it bears repeating: put the parking behind the building and place the building at the sidewalk: save the front for people.
Now this is a very simple rule but, alas, in reality easier said than done. The reality is that in our car-oriented culture, there are situations in which we want the parking very close at hand. The typical strip-center approach — put the parking in front of the building — is hard to avoid if you want it to serve people late at night.
Talk as we might about proper urban design, no one is going to feel comfortable going to a "7-11" at 2 a.m. and walking around from the back of the building to the entrance. It's bad enough when the parking is in front — in the dark of night it is not an inviting choice.
The basic rules of feeling safe — natural surveillance and territoriality — are at work in the conventional strip-center development. But while the principle may work for the one site, the same pattern, repeated over and over, is counterproductive to safety as it creates a neighborhood of a scale where people only want to be in cars.
Luckily, there are very few uses such as the 24-hour convenience store where access at odd hours must be a design constraint. Certainly safety through the eyes of others is essential.
But the idea that parking must always be in front of the shop, right off the sidewalk, would lead to designing a city around a worst-case situation. So the basic rule must be to put the parking out of sight.
Comfort: Measure of an Urban Village
Following "man is the measure of the world," so, now "human comfort is the measure of a city's success."
Our society makes the problem of city building far too complicated. We confuse it with grandeur and with complex public administration. It is neither. The main task is making people comfortable, the same task faced by the host at a party. Think of the main job for a city planner to be the Amy Vanderbilt of the city.
All around us are examples of excellence in concept and design: city comforts. They are simple to recognize, simple to explain and, by and large, simple to build. These designs-that-work can be repeated many times before, if ever, they run thin.
David Sucher is a real estate developer, an urban planner, public speaker, and an
observer of cities in Seattle, Washington. He'll share more examples
of city comforts in future issues of ArchitectureWeek.
This article is excerpted from City Comforts, copyright © 1995, and is available from City Comforts Press, Inc and Amazon.com.