Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Urban Design Qualities to Encourage Walkability

Placemaking involves creating welcoming gathering spaces and destinations in a community to make it a more desirable place to live.  But, even if there are places to visit within a short walk of your home, you may be unlikely to walk there if the way to get there was unsafe or unpleasant.  Certain features in the built environment inhibit walkability.  These features, or lack of, influence our perceptions and our decision to walk to and from destinations.

The urban design literature points to numerous perceptual qualities, also called urban design qualities, that may affect the walking experience.  Other fields from the architecture, landscape architecture, park planning, environmental psychology, and the growing visual preference and visual assessment literature have also alluded to this.

Pedestrian- & Transit-Oriented Design, a book on how to design spaces for pedestrians while also accommodating transit needs, points out eight urban design qualities as the keys to the simple perception that a neighborhood is a great place to live and work.

  • Enclosure: the degree to which streets and other public spaces are visually defined by buildings, walls, trees and other vertical elements.   A sense of enclosure results when lines of sight are so decisively blocked as to make outdoor spaces seem room-like. Enclosure is eroded by breaks in the continuity of the street wall, that is, breaks in the vertical elements that line the street. Breaks in continuity that are occupied by nonactive uses, such as vacant lots, parking lots, and driveways create dead spaces that further erode enclosure as do large building setbacks.
Trees can help to form a sense of enclosure. Photo: Dan Burden.

Photos A and B show the abundance of poorly maintained and often unutilized gaps between buildings, particularly in the form of “hard gaps” seen in the above photo as vacant lots.   Photo C shows the presence of several suburban-like building setbacks (parking lots ,rather than buildings, facing the street).  Notice how overhangs, seating and trees help to create the perception of the sidewalk as an “outdoor room”. *

  • Imageability is the quality of a place that makes it distinct, recognizable, and memorable. A place has high imageability when specific physical elements and their arrangement capture attention, evoke feelings, and create a lasting impression. Imageability is related to “sense of place.”
Cloud Gate, Chicago, photo by Holly Moskerintz

The photos above illustrate some elements of imageability such as historic buildings and unique landmarks, like churches or other cultural facilities; place identifiers in the form of lamp post banners; and unique signage.  Imageability elements missing include courtyards, parks, plazas, sidewalk benches/seating and outdoor cafes. *

  • Human scale refers to a size, texture, and articulation of physical elements that match the size and proportions of humans and, equally important, correspond to the speed at which humans walk. Building details, pavement texture, street trees, and street furniture are all physical elements contributing to human scale.
Portland, Maine, photo by Dan Burden.

Some of the human scale elements include buildings between one and four stories tall with mostly shallow setbacks, relatively small signs and symbols, and a variety of sidewalk ornamentation.  Pedestrian-oriented ornamentation and infrastructure elements in the photos above include signs, bike racks, bus stop enclosures and planters. *

  • Transparency refers to the degree to which people can see or perceive what lies beyond the edge of a street or other public space and, more specifically, the degree to which people can see or perceive human activity beyond the edge of a street or other public space. Physical elements that influence transparency include walls, windows, doors, fences, landscaping, and openings into midblock spaces.
Seattle, Washington, photo by Eagle Rock Ventures, L.L.C.

Fewer windows at street level, closed or vacant storefronts, and fewer retail activities contribute to low transparency.  Store fronts dominated by glass facilitates a perception of space that extends beyond the sidewalk and into the stores themselves.  Continuous street walls and larger and more numerous windows blends the indoor and outdoor environments with street cafés and open-air restaurants which enhance the sense of permeability, adding to the vitality and perception of security within these streetscapes. *

  • Complexity refers to the visual richness of a place. The complexity of a place depends on the variety of the physical environment, specifically the number and kinds of buildings, architectural diversity and ornamentation, landscape elements, street furniture, signage, and human activity.
Boulder, Colorado, photo by Adrienne Schmitz.

The photos above exhibit complexity as they have a mix of building styles, designs, and signage.  However, streetscapes with a more contiguous street wall and transparent storefronts, tends to showcase more overall variety and creativity in building facades, particularly at street level. This includes contrasting architecture styles and eras, using non-linear storefront geometry, incorporating varied textures and patterns, and utilizing a variety of lighting types. *

  • Coherence refers to a sense of visual order. The degree of coherence is influenced by consistency and complementarity in the scale, character, and arrangement of buildings, landscaping, street furniture, paving materials, and other physical elements.
Glendale, California. Photo: Devon Meade & Ian Douglass.

  • Legibility refers to the ease with which the spatial structure of a place can be understood and navigated as a whole. The legibility of a place is improved by a street or pedestrian network that provides travelers with a sense of orientation and relative location and by physical elements that serve as reference points.
San Francisco, California, Photo: Dan Burden.

  • Linkage refers to physical and visual connections—from building to street, building to building, space to space, or one side of the street to the other—that tend to unify disparate elements. Tree lines, building projections, and marked crossings all create linkage. Linkage can occur longitudinally along a street or laterally across a street.
Boca Raton, Florida, photo by Reid Ewing.

By considering these qualities, researchers, planners, and policy makers can better understand the relationship between physical features of the street environment and walking behavior and, as a result, they can develop more effective urban design planning solutions for creating quality pedestrian environments. Designing places where people can be active and connect with others is not only good for people—it’s good for business.

* Source: Equity in Microscale Urban Design and Walkability: A Photographic Survey of Six Pittsburgh Streetscapes.


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Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
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