Experiencing Centers 1 – Inviting Places

People come together in order to live. They remain together to live the good life.  Aristotle

To succeed, downtowns and other urban centers must be people places that are attractive, distinctive and livable.  This a social – and economic – prerequisite.  While designers may argue over how to do it, lay people know a well-made place when they see and feel it.  While specific proposals usually spark local controversy, all communities yearn for great shared places.

Santana Row's new urban mixed-use retail format creates a vibrant environment for pedestrians and supports community life.

Pedestrian-oriented streets and architecture at Santana Row in San Jose.

The Power of Placemaking. The best places engage our sense, bring people together, and put us physically at ease.   Skilled designers do this in simple and elegant ways, and make the walking experience a principle focus.  Once a visitor arrives downtown, they are on foot and the quality of their experience will influence whether they arrive early or stay late – perhaps to dine, drink, or shop – and whether they will tell friends or return themselves.

Mixed-use building with retail, office and a residential tower in downtown Vancouver, British Colombia.

Modern expression for traditional street-oriented building in Vancouver.

Walkable streets and attractive amenities are critical if any downtown is to compete as a destination.  Walking brings downtown destinations and uses together, but access on foot only works if it is enjoyable.  All too often, streets are designed in ways that put pedestrians at the bottom of the transportation food chain.  For downtowns to succeed, they must be conceived principally as a place to occupy and enjoy – rather than simply a space to move through.

Sky bridges illustrate an auto-centric revitalization strategy that results in alienating streets and a downtown with single-use silos.

Sky bridges in Atlanta make walking on streets uninviting.

Safety and Comfort. Feeling secure tops the hierarchy of human needs.  Threatening behavior and hostile surroundings doom urban places.   Some key aspects of an urban environment affect safety from the way that they are arranged physically.  Intensity of use also plays a role.  An essential principle of creating “people places” is peopling the place.  Downtown destinations must be attractive enough – or the downtown’s density great enough – to populate public places in sufficient numbers.  This is especially true for a pedestrian’s path of travel along streets.  When a locale goes from barely- to well-populated, aberrant and aggressive behavior changes from focal point to background.  Security, and our feeling of security, increases with the presence others.

Modern buildings often fail to address pedestrians' need for engaging, safe, and comfortable environments..

The blank facades that line downtown streets diminish its advantage as a walkable district.

When people can watch out for each other, places feel secure. “Informal surveillance” comes with lines of sight from a building’s interior to a space.  Crime and anti-social behavior are deterred by the possibility that someone might be watching, even if no one is. Because people are more vulnerable at night, places with housing or entertainment feel safer than downtowns with only office buildings.  Vacant lots and blank walls are notorious for unwanted behavior.

Street trees shade pedestrians, give human-sized scale, and connect urban dwellers with changing seasons and nature.

Street trees add beauty and make pleasant places to walk.

Physiological comfort is another condition for a successful urban center. People will move on – or avoid a place altogether – if the place feels too hot or too cold. Buildings and landscaping create microclimates, which can be made more (or less) comfortable through intentional design.  Downtown streets and open spaces are more inviting when sun is available on cold days and shade on hot.  This does not preclude the taller buildings that are often needed to bring the people needed to support downtowns, but tall buildings need to be arranged so they don’t shade streets and other public spaces for long periods of time.  Potential wind impacts also need to be avoided through mindful design. And trees and landscaping can effect the relative humidity of a place and also influence physiological comfort.

One of the world's "great streets," the Ramblas is a narrow park that is flanked by streets and street-facing buildings on both sides.

Barcelona's Ramblas promotes economic activity by supporting community life.

Security and physiological comfort are only foundational elements for downtowns and other urban centers.  To succeed in a sustained way, urban centers must also be socially relevant and delight our senses.  Centers continue to present communities with unique ways to connect to other people and the special geography of a place.  Because they concentrate people and resources, centers also have the capacity to be cultural magnets.  Both of these themes will be covered in part 2 of “Experiencing Centers.”