Urban Places Planning Research Paper

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‘Life Takes Place on Foot,’ is the aphorism of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect who is an acute and sympathetic observer of the way that people interact with each other and with their surroundings. Gehl’s theory is that, no matter what technical innovations are taking place, human beings have not changed. They still need the casual contact with other human beings that used to be built into daily life, but is becoming more and more unusual in countries with advanced industrial economies. Gehl has concluded that this complicated concept can be reduced to a relatively simple mechanism. People pursue necessary activities that take them through public spaces. If the spaces are a poor physical environment, people will get through them as quickly as possible. If the environment is attractive, people will linger and engage in what Gehl calls optional activities, like sitting down for a few minutes in a cool place in summer, or a sheltered, sunny spot in winter, or just slowing down and enjoying life, stopping for a cup of coffee or tea, or looking at a statue or a fountain. The more optional activities there are in a public place, the more likely that there will be what Gehl calls ‘resultant activities,’ that is, sociability, people meeting accidentally or striking up a conversation with strangers (Gehl 1980).

Gehl argues for the sociability created by traditional streets and squares, as opposed to the open spaces in most of Denmark’s modern housing projects or the big institutional parking lots where there are trafficways but few streets next to buildings. He believes that designers can make new groups of buildings that have similar characteristics to the traditional townscapes that his research finds are still successful in fostering sociability.

Gehl’s contemporary, the late William H. Whyte, makes comparable arguments about streets and public spaces in New York and other big American cities, mapping the places where people congregate and interact, and comparing them to public places that are empty and sterile (Whyte 1980, 1988). He also argues that design can make a big difference in behavior in public places, comparing spots that are taken over by-antisocial activities with those that are safe and popular. Whyte adds two elements to Gehl’s conclusions: one is the usefulness of providing movable chairs in public places, so that people can create temporary environments for themselves; the second is the importance of animation: multiple activities fronting on the public space and programmed for the space. The more that is going on in and around a space, the more likelihood that people will be attracted, their paths will cross, and Gehl’s ‘resultant activities’ will take place.

1. The Origins Of Modern Public Spaces

Traditional public spaces were not designed for leisure, so the issue of whether they were inviting or not did not arise. Market streets and squares were crowded, functional places, and other separate plazas in front of palaces or religious buildings were intended for ceremonies. Public fountains, became a meeting place as people went there to draw water. In large parts of the world these functional aspects of public space continue as they always have.

During the Renaissance period in Europe, public spaces began to be embellished to create compositions in perspective; comparable to those already created in paintings, gardens, and stage scenery. Buildings were designed to be symmetrical around a central axis, arcades and colonnades modulated the facades, and often the same design system was applied to the frontages around a square. Long, straight streets were designed to terminate at the center of a public building, or at a plaza with a monument. Most of these design innovations were about ceremony: an enhanced street environment for the carriages of the aristocracy, a place where the arrival of important people and their entrance into a palatial building would be appropriately stately and impressive.

The opening of Vauxhall Gardens and other pleasure gardens in London in the eighteenth century and the conversion of the Palais Royal in Paris during the 1780s into what we might today call a shopping and entertainment center, were some of the earliest public places dedicated to leisure-time activities. The Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is a descendant of this type of public space whose most recent evolution is the theme park. Public parks open to everyone, like Central Park in New York, are a nineteenth century innovation, so are village greens with a public bandstand. The New England common in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was a staging area for cattle, overgrazed, dirty, and full of manure—not a green oasis with a whilepainted pavilion in the center. The street as a place for a leisurely public promenade is also a mid-nineteenth century invention, the Parisian boulevards being the archetype. The European cafe with tables on the sidewalk or in the public square is a relatively recent innovation. The pedestrian street or pedestrian district is mostly a new phenomenon since around 1950, the Stroget in Copenhagen, Denmark, being one of the first shopping streets that were closed to all but pedestrians. In US cities many of the pedestrian malls have been taken out again, as closing the streets to vehicles caused them to disappear from the mental maps of the people who once used them. In the historic centers of European cities, where public transit is much more a part of everyday life, the pedestrian street and plaza remains successful.

2. Making Public Space Inviting

The idea that cities should have many urban outdoor spaces, open to all, without an admission charge or the need to patronize a cafe, owes something to the modern movement in architecture. Tall buildings need space around them, and architects began designing plazas to provide an appropriate setting for towers. These plazas were not always intended to encourage people to spend time there. The idea was to create an impressive approach to the building. The owners often placed spikes on ledges so that people would not sit or lie on them, and the microclimate was frequently unfriendly, with strong downdrafts from the building when it was windy, blinding sunlight on hot days, and large unsheltered expanses in winter.

Uninviting spaces in highly accessible locations became places for ‘anti-social elements’ to hang out, they attracted drug dealing, they detracted from the atmosphere of corporate dignity that the owners and architects had hoped to create. In addition, some of these public spaces had been built in response to government incentives; they were supposed to be a public benefit, not a public nuisance.

Research by William H. Whyte, Jan Gehl and others has now given us some simple principles for the design of these new kinds of public spaces, which can be summarized under the following seven headings.

2.1 Legibility

Savvy pedestrians are not going to enter a public space if they cannot see how they can get out of it again. Sunken and raised plazas are usually not attractive for this reason, neither is any kind of enclosed dead end. A successful public space needs several clearly visible entrances and exits. The same considerations apply to sub-components of the public space. There should not be any secluded pockets or inaccessible corners.

Interior public spaces need openings to the outdoors so that people can figure out where they are. Bridges in skyway systems generally have windows that provide orientation. Underground concourse systems should look out on occasional sunken courtyards. Works of art and distinctive storefronts can help people find their way, but they do not provide any reference to familiar landmarks outside of the building.

2.2 Microclimate

As the public open space is sometimes a residual element in the design of the building, it can end up having an unfavorable orientation. A north-facing plaza, which gets almost no sunlight, is not likely to be attractive, even in a warm climate. New York City’s plaza regulations require a southern exposure whenever possible. Wind tunnel tests are usually done for tall buildings to evaluate special conditions on the exterior walls that might cause windows to pop out or other structural failures. At the same time, tests could be done to see if there are any unusual wind conditions created on the plaza. The shape of the tower can interact with winds from a certain direction to create augmented air currents across plazas. These locally created winds can be strong enough to knock people over.

People like to sit in the sun on a cold day and be protected from the wind. On hot days they look for shade and a cool breeze. Good public-space design should be able to create both conditions. Well-placed trees and a fountain can create a pleasantly cool microclimate on hot days; chairs or benches in front of a south facing wall that stores heat and blocks wind can produce a favorable environment when the weather is cooler.

2.3 Seating

The essence of an inviting space is the ability to sit down and linger as long as you wish. The seating does not have to be benches or chairs. Ledges on buildings or the edges of planting boxes—without spikes—will do very well if they are placed at three feet or less (but more than a foot) above the plaza, a height where sitting is easy and comfortable. Flights of wide shallow stairs lend themselves to all kinds of impromptu seating arrangements.

Whyte recommends individual movable chairs, such as are rented out for a small sum in French parks, over fixed arrangements of benches. The chairs can be moved about to create all kinds of groups, pulled into the sun or shade, and just generally rearranged to give individuals a feeling of comfort. If fixed, backless benches are used, Whyte suggests making them wide enough that strangers can sit on either side without making each other uncomfortable.

Furnishing a public space with movable chairs means that there must be a guard or attendant present, which is desirable for other reasons: even the best designed spaces need someone to keep order and deal with emergencies.

2.4 People Watching

One of the principal attractions of being in a public space is the opportunity to watch other people. Seating areas should face out over circulation paths. Studies have shown that benches or other fixed seating oriented away from traffic flow will go unused, or will be used in what Jan Gehl calls ‘untraditional ways.’ He illustrates his point with a photograph of two Danish matrons seated back to front on a park bench, with their legs through the gap between the seat and the backrest, watching the crowds walk by.

2.5 Food

A concession that sells sandwiches, salads, soft drinks, and desserts enhances a public space and is an economical way of making sure that there are responsible people around to keep an eye on what is going on. The only problem is if the concession is permitted to take over the space and make it uncomfortable for anyone who has not bought food or drink.

2.6 Lighting

Even cities that have given a zoning bonus for a public plaza should allow it to be closed from the late evening to the early morning. However, lighting is still an important factor in extending the use of the space and making sure it is not misused at night. Floodlights glaring down on the plaza from tall poles or surrounding buildings are efficient, but can create a penitentiary atmosphere. Although harder to maintain, some of the light should be reflected off trees, come from built-in fixtures near ground level, and from street lamps in scale for pedestrians, with light sources that give a pleasant illumination.

2.7 Surrounding Activities

The most important factor in the design of an urban plaza is what happens around it. New York City’s regulations governing plazas that qualify for a zoning bonus require that 50 percent of the building frontage on the plaza be devoted to retail—defined as not including banks, brokerages, airline offices, and travel agencies. This is a shrewd requirement as the typical New York zoning plaza, before these regulations were written, belonged to an office building. If the office tower had any ground-floor uses at all, they were likely to be a bank, a brokerage, or a travel agency, dignified activities that were useful for office tenants but did not do much to enliven a plaza, compared to a restaurant, a shop selling take-out food, or a book store.

Jan Gehl goes farther, saying that tall buildings should not directly adjoin a public space or even, if at all possible, a sidewalk. His reasons have to do with keeping buildings and their activities in scale with pedestrians. Someone leaning out a third-floor window is still recognizably a human being to a person walking by at ground level. Of course, most modern office towers are sealed buildings, even on the lower floors, but that is exactly the point Gehl is making. A street or a public square is a three dimensional place, for it to be at its best it should relate to activities on the second floor and perhaps above. Shopping malls are now designed this way, so that, if you are walking along on level one, you can see that there is a food court on level three. On the same principle, retail streets and public places should be designed with a liner of buildings of low buildings with active uses, with the taller buildings set back within this matrix of traditional relationships.

In residential neighborhoods, the same principle suggests that houses be designed in relation to streets and public spaces. This is the basis for the front porches and small front yards characteristic of many ‘new urbanist’ communities.

2.8 Walking

According to Whyte’s observations, the distance that people were likely to walk in New York City was five north–south blocks, which adds up to about 1250 feet, or a little less than a quarter of a mile. This finding agrees with the experience of shopping center developers who have found that 1200 feet is about the practical limit to the distance between major destinations, like department stores, in a shopping mall.

It also agrees with the diagram published by Clarence Perry in his famous article, The Neighborhood Unit, showing a residential neighborhood lying within a circle a half-mile in diameter—that is no more than a five-minute walk from a central point (Perry 1929). At the center of the circle were an elementary school and other neighborhood institutions.

These are modern figures applying to people who are used to driving a car or taking public transit. The five-minute threshold is not about physical stamina but about the onset of boredom, and the fact that people today feel that they need to use time efficiently. According to Whyte, New Yorkers, living in a transitrich environment, will start thinking about taking a bus, the subway, or a taxi if a trip is going to take more than five minutes on foot. In a more typical city, someone leaving the office to go to lunch will start thinking about getting the car out of the garage if the distance is more than a short walk.

Whyte found that to get people to walk for even five minutes meant that you had to keep them interested. In environments where buildings flanking the sidewalk had long stretches of blank walls, Whyte found that pedestrian traffic was low. Again, this confirms the experience of shopping-center owners that even a few vacant storefronts near a prominent corner could be enough to discourage shoppers from entering a whole section of a mall. The interest factor turns out to be far more important than ease of pedestrian movement.

For years city planners and designers believed that the best way to promote pedestrian movement was to remove ‘conflict’ between pedestrians and vehicles and to protect pedestrians from the weather. This is the theory behind the skyway systems in Calgary, Minneapolis, St Paul, Charlotte and other cities in the USA and Canada, and also the underground pedestrian concourses in Montreal, at Rockefeller Center in New York, and in downtown Dallas and Houston. Whyte measured the pedestrian traffic in skyways and concourses and found that the numbers of people dropped off sharply as he went farther from the center of the system. Not only did a skyway or concourse system not overcome the five-minute limit, but also, unless there were shops along the way, people did not even walk that far.

The weather protection provided by the concourse and skyway system is clearly useful. In Canada, Calgary has sub-zero winter temperatures, although even in Calgary Whyte found that people prefer the streets when the weather is good. On a winter day in Montreal that was so cold that his camera froze, William H. Whyte found as many pedestrians on Ste. Catherine Street as in the nearby underground concourse of Place Ville Marie.

Separating people from cars is more useful for drivers, by getting rid of delays at crosswalks, than it is for pedestrians, who generally prefer a direct route at street level to the bridges or underpasses placed for their safety at busy urban intersections.

The effect of a skyway or underground concourse system is to divide the pedestrians into numbers that are too small to support retail at both street level and the skyway or concourse. Except in very busy cities the protected level will become dominant, leaving the street level without much in the way of shopping, which means it is too boring to attract pedestrians, and does not look safe enough.

Whyte’s studies left him much impressed by the efficiency of walking and the instinctive skill with which people avoid collisions on busy sidewalks. He was also bemused to note that the places where people stopped to talk were generally at street corners, right in the middle of the pedestrian traffic stream.

3. The Empty Square

Both Gehl and Whyte, working in the 1970s, present these issues as questions of design, a follow up to Jane Jacobs’ famous comparison of the deserted and dangerous lawns in a public housing project with the active social life on her street in Greenwich Village in the 1950s (Jacobs 1961).

Today in some parts of the world this kind of livability has become a larger design issue than the configuration of individual streets and public spaces. An article, ‘The Empty Square’ by Alan Ehrenhalt in a recent Preservation, asks the question: ‘If casual social encounters are at the heart of civic life, where did everybody go?’ (Ehrenhalt 2000). In most US cities and towns necessary activities take place using a car, and the opportunities for any kind of casual interaction are much diminished. The commuter goes from the garage at home to the garage or parking lot at work. Only the journey from the car space to the lobby takes place on foot. Shopping and errands are done by car to individual destinations. Schools, churches, country clubs, restaurants, movies—each are a separate destination reachable only by car. The Court-House Square is empty. People drive to the health club and do their walking on a treadmill.

Architects, landscape architects, and city planners are currently debating whether it is still important to create public places that permit the face-to-face contact found in traditional cities and towns, or whether life today requires something completely different. One side, which includes the people who call themselves New Urbanists, believes that traditional streets, squares, promenades, and parks are still the essence of city design (Charter of the New Urbanism 1996, 2000). Their opponents, among whom the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, is perhaps the most articulate, believe that the idea that cities can be designed at all is based on unexamined philosophical assumptions, and that modern transportation and communication, particularly the Internet, have made traditional urban spaces obsolete. One of Koolhaas’s characteristic statements: [we need] ‘to accept what exists. We were making sandcastles. Now we swim in the sea that swept them away’ (Koolhaas and Mau 1995).

An expert on computer technology, William J. Mitchell, has written a book, e-topia: ‘Urban Life, Jim—But Not as We Know It,’ which observes that the interactions of technology and behavior are much too complex to allow simple apocalyptic conclusions (Mitchell 2000). Mitchell points out that you have to look at the totality of people’s work and personal lives if you want to make good estimates about where new technology is taking us. Most of the people who have chosen to leave cities and suburbs because the computer has freed them to work where they choose are not living on mountain-tops but in smaller, rural communities, precisely because of the face-to-face communication possible in such places. Many email messages are about establishing face-to-face meetings. The demand for hotel rooms and convention centers seems to be going up. Mitchell notes the rising interest in living in or near places that are rich in social interaction: older urban centers and suburban downtowns, older mixed-use neighborhoods and their modern imitations, as well as resorts. He concludes that the power of place will still prevail, that people will still gravitate to settings that offer particular cultural, scenic, and climatic attractions—‘those unique qualities that cannot be pumped through a wire’—and will continue to care about face-to-face interactions.

Assuming that William Mitchell is correct, and the design of urban public places will continue to matter, how can such spaces be incorporated into new development?

4. Designing Li Able Communities As Well As Public Spaces

Planning workplaces and residences so that they relate more closely to each other, designing retail as park once districts, following economic development policies to create self-reinforcing clusters of businesses and related activities, building neighborhoods of diverse housing types instead of instead of housing tracts, and integrating school buildings back into their communities would go a long way towards creating more livable communities where personal interaction is easier and more meaningful.

The amount of time spent commuting is clearly one of the most important livability issues, because excessive commuting time takes up the part of the day that could otherwise be used for more leisurely activities or spent at home with children. Attempts to solve this problem by building new roads are seldom successful because the roads induce new traffic. New patterns of working at home and commuting electronically will diminish the problem. But the real answers will come from creating places where home and work are more closely related.

What made the traditional main street a place where people could meet unexpectedly was that they were walking from one destination to another. Now, designers of retail development are trying once again to create park-once districts, partly to foster interaction and communication, but also to create synergy among the different retail tenants. This is another trend that will make the design of public spaces more important, as people walk from one destination to another.

5. Bryant Park

How some of the design principles discussed in this research paper work out in practice can be understood from the example of once derelict Bryant Park, a public space behind the New York City Public Library between 40th and 42nd Streets. William H. Whyte was consulted about the redesign of the park. A restaurant was built on the Library’s back terrace, in keeping with Whyte’s prescription for animating public spaces, but against the instincts of people who do not believe that public spaces should be used for commercial purposes. Landscape architect Laurie Olin also followed Whyte’s precepts in making subtle adjustments to the terracing in the park, making it easier for people to see into the park, and getting rid of dead-end locations. Lush gardens, good maintenance, a constant security presence, and lots of movable chairs completely transformed the park, which is now a popular place during the day and well into the evening.

The story of Bryant Park and similar successes elsewhere demonstrate that derelict places can be made livable by following a few simple principles, which can also be applied to the design of new neighborhoods, workplaces, and shopping districts.


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  3. Ehrenhalt A 2000 The empty square. Preservation, March April 2000 Washington, DC, pp. 42–51
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  7. Mitchell W 2000 e-topia: ‘Urban Life Jim – But Not as We Know It. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  8. Perry C A 1929 The neighborhood unit. In: Neighborhood and Community Planning, Vol. VII of the Regional Survey of New York and Its Environs, Committee on Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, New York
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  10. Whyte W H 1988 City, Rediscovering the Center. Doubleday, New York
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