An earlier post noted how hard it is to agree on what is “authentic” and, by extension, what can make travel experiences authentic (or not). Sometimes you just know it when you feel or encounter it. In addition to cultural authenticity (which we looked at previously ), there is also an urban design aspect of the authentic. Read on to see and learn more about design’s role in enabling authentic travel.
So what exactly is urban design? This term refers to the way that the built (and formally shaped or landscaped) aspects of the city interact with human experiences of the city. And even when design is not purely “authentic” in its strict sense, good urban design creates enough comfort that people believe at least some elements of a place are authentic. In this post I discuss two basic urban design concepts behind places that tend to make people feel good, then speak to ways that designers have tried to sort out what is and is not authentic. There are many more concepts that can apply, so this is not the first or last word on urban design.
Urban Design 101 -the Ideas of Kevin Lynch
My city planning background has exposed me to several theories of designing livable cities. (warning: planning geek alert). Many people have heard about Jane Jacobs, whose theories focused more on scale and mixes of uses or activities. There are other classic design theorists from her era with a stronger sense of why people feel the way they do in certain places, including Kevin Lynch and Christopher Alexander. This post focuses on Lynch’s ideas from his book The Image of the City, because they have shaped even the newer approaches and theories in use today.
Lynch was a wonderfully clear communicator who spoke to why certain designs make us feel better than others. By showcasing what people were already doing, and how these techniques were impacting city dwellers and visitors, he helped new designers and city builders focus more on the good aspects of centuries of city-building traditions while also moving on and embracing new things.
Lynch clarified that five basic elements go into good urban design: nodes, (appropriate) edges, paths, districts, and landmarks. I want to focus today on two of these concepts: nodes and edges.
A node or focal point in design terms is a place that concentrates people and activity. New York’s Times Square is a node, combining open space, lots of commercial activity, and many ways for people to access it.
A node can also include a vital stretch of a retail street with lots of pedestrian activity (e.g. Oxford Street in London). Sometimes nodes are popular open spaces, but usually these are popular for a reason -people are drawn to them because there is an activity they can do or watch together. Even if people come to a place where they remain largely alone, a node typically makes even quasi-solitary activities feel vibrant because there are other people there, whose energy is palpable. And sometimes the features that draw people may be temporary, as with the Picnurbia installation below that ran on Vancouver’s Robson Street in 2011, where the City temporarily closed two blocks of the popular shopping street and installed low-cost amenities that encouraged people to just hang out.
Nodes often feel more authentic when the activity in question is one that also appeals to locals and /or the nodes have a strong connection to something that has played an important role in the history of a place. So even though people today might complain about all of the chain stores now populating Times Square, it retains a strong link with key events in New York’s history (e.g. Vietnam War protests), and remains close to a vital theatre district that continues to draw people. But it isn’t just the use of the square that makes this and other nodes attractive. A landmark like a statue, public art, clock tower, or large old tree (and another design element in its own right), can create a focal point for a node in a way that is both socially and aesthetically appealing. The photo below, of Trafalgar Square in London, shows how a statue and adjacent fountain create a natural clustering point in a much larger open space.
Nodes may also be defined by edges, which help make people feel secure in them. In the next section, I explain how edges work.
So yes, edges matter—but why? Lynch valued their role in helping define a space, by giving it a clear end and beginning. Edges, when done well, make us comfortable, by reducing a sense of being visually overwhelmed. The walls of buildings can help define a street edge, for example. The photo below shows how this can work:
Yet if the height of a given building is too high, without variation or interruption; or the horizontal wall effect also lacks these things, the building (which might have provided a sense of comfortable enclosure) will overwhelm rather than comfort.
As with many things in life, good edges are about getting the balance right. For this reason, skilled designers of taller buildings might step them back, or further away from the street after a few stories -to improve the building’s positive effect on the street edge. A long line of buildings of similar height might be broken up visually through periodic colour /stylistic changes. Here is an example of this technique applied in Vancouver, and a feature of the design approach that quickly became known as “Vancouverism”:
Sometimes it helps to think of an edge as a type of picture frame. And in that respect, other edges (besides building walls) can be more suggestive than literal. For example, we’ve all seen pergolas that help define a garden without completely closing off access.
Also, edges can be enhanced or animated through uses that add people doing social /socially-approved things. A good example of this might be a European square or space that is already defined by building walls, and then enhanced by people sitting at cafe tables right next to those edges. They make plazas and squares which might otherwise seem a bit too large feel like a more comfortable size, without a permanent size reduction. When Jane Jacobs described her ideal urban village, the mix of street-oriented retail uses catering to people from a range of backgrounds (florist, produce-seller, coffee shop) ideally achieved a similar type of animation.
Some of these principles are being applied in less organic ways, such as in new shopping mall developments. I have conflicting feelings about this. These applications truly are an improvement on the traditional shopping mall approach to design, plus chain stores have to make a living too. And in the mid-day sun, the example below would have more people. But is it authentic? Here again, the answer might relate to balance…
Edges don’t just have to work in high density settings. Even in a lower density historic suburb, edges can clearly distinguish between public and private property without completely shutting people out. Nan Ellin referred to this as porosity, where flows of people are filtered (See her book Integral Urbanism). The photo below shows a fenced yard (perhaps to discourage deer, who are notorious garden-eaters), with a clearly open entry point that is welcoming to humans who want to visit, but might be more intimidating to an animal that could feel enclosed by the narrowness of the entry portal.
So how does good urban design enhance authenticity? On one hand, it does this by increasing human comfort at an intuitive level, and helping people to feel good in a space and to appreciate sharing the space with others. Good design will be an important reason that congregating in a space or on a street will feel natural, in addition to the mix of activities that will also draw people. Nodes (including landmarks) and edges are two of several elements that author Kevin Lynch argued make us feel good in the cities where we spend time. Even so, as authors like Sharon Zukin argue, if good design is accompanied by other events and practices which exclude, the end result is a place that starts to feel hollow and contrived. In a future column I’ll focus on her ideas. For now, the next time you find yourself hanging out in a new city, consider reflecting on how its nodes and edges enhance or detract from your sense of comfort there.