Urban centers hold great potential to address growing social, environmental, and economic challenges – but to do this, the human experience of centers must be addressed, not just through a sense of security and physiological comfort but also by being socially relevant and delighting our senses.
Social Relevance. Downtowns remain the iconic “heart” of many communities, and new urban centers have this potential. When they function as they should, downtowns are a great place to be around other people. Cultural destinations promote social exchange and play a vital role in the revitalization of many downtown, as do civic institutions. Libraries, post offices, and YMCAs play a vital role. They are often overlooked, however, as important downtown assets, and are sometimes moved to highway locations with parking lots. Ironically, these communities may be trying to revitalize their downtowns while simultaneously disinvesting in them.
Downtown’s social side is also promoted by the hard work of people who program events that draw community members downtown in large numbers. Farmers markets, music festivals, art fairs, and charity footraces help put downtowns on the map. Where commercial uses are struggling or absent, downtowns can remain relevant by programming events, providing community services, and providing an attractive sense of place.
A sense of social connection not only feels good, it is also associated with economic growth. A 2008 Gallup / Knight Foundation study showed that a community’s “gross domestic product” correlates strongly with positive perceptions of its social offerings (i.e., cultural infrastructure) and aesthetics (i.e., beautiful public environments), and more so that positive perceptions of local employment and other economic conditions.
Regardless of whether social connectedness adds value to economies, or if successful communities value and invest in social connectedness, downtowns and other people places deserve attention and investment. In fact, downtown intensities and their place-based value-added yield even higher property tax revenues than suburban retail powerhouses like Walmart. A fiscal study of Sarasota County, Florida, showed that one acre in downtown Sarasota yielded $800,000 in property taxes, about 36 times the yield of the most successful shopping mall in the area.
Delighting Our Senses. Community destinations and pleasurable walking environments attract attention and help downtowns compete in the regional marketplace, even when retail has gone elsewhere. Attractive urban streets, buildings, and open spaces stimulate our senses. They engage us with street musicians and intricate architecture. They satisfy our social need to gather, promenade, and belong.
Beautiful urban places can delight us as much beauty found in nature, and we often seek these places out when we vacation. Most successful urban places present beautiful “outdoor rooms” shaped by buildings that, as a rule of thumb, are at least half as tall as the space is wide.
Successful places delight at every scale but especially up close as we windowshop along storefronts and sense the seasons under dappled tree canopies. Architectural variety and consistency are both needed and result from three aesthetic attributes: color, materials, and modulation (i.e., the in-and-out up-and-down of buildings). Visual cacophony usually results when all of these basic attributes are varied, but if one attribute is held constant, both complexity and harmony can be attained.
Great urban places give us a sense of our geography. Building materials that are common within a region – brick in Boston or wood in San Francisco – give reminders of where you are. Water also reveals where you are, whether at creekside in San Luis Obispo or quayside in Providence. Buildings also give clues to where we are by responding to the local climate, examples of which – depending on the location – might include deep eaves, thick walls, arcades, verandas, and pitched roofs.
Donlyn Lyndon calls attitude toward building the “Power of Inhabitation” that comes when people “recognise their place within a complex fabric, [and] understand their relationship to a larger more enduring order” (ILAUD Journal 1997). The Power of Inhabitation also relies on an avoidance of sterile over-controlled settings, such as shopping malls. Great places arise out of community members’ ability “to invest in continuing care in place through …alteration; [and] to have a variety of spatial conditions to choose among, rather than being forced to play out the lives that designers imagine for them.”
……………………………………………………………Humanism and Sustainability. A commitment to humanism within urban environments is more than a romantic notion, and attention to the human experience within centers is a prerequisite for success.
The Danish architect and author, Jan Gehl, noted recently on fastcompany.com that “There’s been a renaissance in public places…. Whenever it’s done properly, we have seen people come by the thousands. …[Although w]e live more scattered and isolated, …the one thing homo sapiens has always been interested in is other people. The number one attraction in any city isn’t the buildings, the parks, the sculptures or the statues. It is people.”
Our shared human experience has value and drives the viability of downtowns and other urban centers — centers that are also needed to meet many of the environmental, social and economic challenges we face.