Streets with no game

  • 2016-08-15
  • Aeon

Behavioural effects of city street design have been reported before. In 2006, the Danish urbanist Jan Gehl observed that people walk more quickly in front of blank façades; compared with an open, active façade, people are less likely to pause or even turn their heads in such locations. They simply bear down and try to get through the unpleasant monotony of the street until they emerge on the other side, hopefully to find something more interesting.

For planners concerned with making city streets more amenable and pedestrian-friendly, findings such as these have enormous implications: by simply changing the appearance and physical structure of a building’s bottom three metres, they can exert a dramatic impact on the manner in which a city is used. Not only are people more likely to walk around in cityscapes with open and lively façades, but the kinds of things that they do in such places actually change. They pause, look around and absorb their surroundings while in a pleasant state of positive affect and with a lively, attentive nervous system. Because of these kinds of influences, they actuallywant to be there. And because of such effects, many cities have carefully designed building codes for new construction that dictate some of the contributing factors to happy and lively façades: in cities such as Stockholm, Melbourne and Amsterdam, building codes specify that new construction cannot simply be parachuted into place. There is a hard lower limit on the number of doorways per unit of sidewalk length, and there are specifications for transparency between the building and street in the form of clear windows with two-way views.

In Gehl’s terms, a good city street should be designed so that the average walker, moving at a rate of about 5km per hour, sees an interesting new site about once every five seconds. This does not happen in front of Whole Foods in East Houston Street, nor outside any of the other large, monolithic structures such as banks, courthouses and business towers in cities throughout the world.