Most urban space is designed logically. And that is a problem.
It’s a problem because (you might have noticed) we humans are not wholly logical beings. Our brains, as evidenced in popular books from Blink to Predictably Irrational, are hardwired for quick, instinctive, reactions to sensory clues. That’s not a bad thing – those instinctive reactions keep us alive and our first impressions often hold up over time. Students viewing two second videotapes of a teacher came up with the same ratings of the teacher’s effectiveness as students who spent an entire semester in the teacher’s class. Two seconds.
In an urban setting we make countless snap judgements every day: edging this way to avoid a strange looking person, hearing a laugh off to one side, catching a glimpse of a familiar logo, smelling a bakery and deciding on the next block that we’re hungry.
When we design urban spaces, though, it’s easy to forget all those instincts. To forget the sensory. To over-rely on maps and drawings and linear design.
A case in point: a simple mid-block pedestrian walkway in downtown Victoria, BC, Canada. A mid sized city (metro area 360,000 people) that just celebrated its 25oth birthday, Victoria is a fascinating blend of bureaucracy (it’s the capital of British Columbia), tourism (a popular stop for everyone from kayakers to cruise ships) and innovation (a prominent tech sector). Downtown, I like the fact that some of the longer blocks have mid-block crossings so when I’m on foot I don’t have to haul myself all the way down to a distant intersection to cross the street.
The value of the mid-block crossings is enhanced in a couple places by walkways that cut through the block, so that instead of going all the way to the corners of each block you can short cut between buildings, across the next street, and on to your destination.
So far, so good. The logic works.
The challenge is in how people actually react to what they see, hear, smell – the stimuli that trigger those instant judgements. The greatest challenge with this walkway is that we don’t have a clear sight line from one end of it to the other. We are instinctively cautious about ‘dead end’ routes. There’s an emotional reason we call them dead ends – we have subtle and not so subtle visions of being trapped in a space that goes no where, with no easy exit.
Here’s our view of the passage from the west – an attractive entry point, with a bright and friendly flower shop next to it.
A few steps further in, though, the light changes. It is slightly darker. As a walker, we pick up on those cues subconsciously.
Now, I’m going to jump around to show the entry point from the other side, the east. Here it’s less inviting. Many blank walls and little to invite you in. As you step closer, you need to get well into the passage before you can confirm that it does indeed go all the way through to the sidewalk on the next street.
But even at this point, notice the lights on the left – only one of the three are working. This may not be a big problem in terms of overall visibility during the day but it does register somewhere in our instinctive mind. Non-working lights equate with neglect and potential danger.
From a design point of view there are two key thoughts. First, when designers have the opportunity, features like this should be designed to avoid the ‘dead end’ perception – look for ways to give us a view straight through. In many cases, of course, space designers are working with with limitations like the reality of this space. So the passerby needs more cues that this is a safe and appealing walkway. Signage can help – big, bright, friendly signage that announces the walkway and invites people in.
Sidewalk surface treatments also work — inviting brick patterns that communicate the flow of the passageway or even slightly corny footstep imprints on the surface. Footsteps say ‘other people walked through this way and you can follow.’
Like all public spaces, the more that can be done to include active adjacent uses, the better. Shops on both sides is ideal but again if the configuration of the buildings doesn’t allow that, what about replacing some of the bare concrete with window walls, bright poster boards, flowers, and more lighting?
Finally, a question – who designs these spaces? Unfortunately the answer if often “no one.” Too many public spaces are afterthoughts, leftovers of a commercial development or less important bits of a public works project. These are areas where urban interest groups, downtown business improvement associations and landscape architects can collaborate with municipal officials to work at introducing more thorough and more human design elements.
And, when we set out to design public spaces, let’s be logical – but let’s also turn off the logic at times and let our emotional sensors ‘read’ the surroundings for us.