Activating the edges: how to create animated and active streets
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
A famous skyline can evoke rich associations and give free rein to the imagination, but the true experience of a city is in its streets. Early humans evolved to see the first 20 feet in front of, above, and around them so they could identify potential threats in the landscape. In our modern urban environment, this is still how we experience buildings and places. While aerial views and Google Earth images are useful for reference, the main experience of the exterior of a building is what we pass on the street, up to about the second or third floor. The height of a building does not necessarily matter if the street experience is rich and accessible.
Enabling edges means preventing dead spots where dynamic uses should prevail. Prioritize interactive uses (community spaces, patios, entrances, or seating) in the prime space where the building meets the street edge, to ensure lively interaction between the building and the public realm.
10 actions to improve the streets for children
By placing necessary items such as driveways, service doors, and transformers, minimize disruption to civic life. For example, in a large building, place the entrance way away from the main pedestrian street. Hide the garage out of sight and surround it with homes or community spaces, avoiding blank spots or places that don’t put people first. Attractive borders create a more interesting, interactive and safe streetscape that surrounds your property.
1- Great Ground Floors
Walkable urbanism occurs where the sidewalk and the building touch and interact. We measure the success of a building by how vibrant and contributing the ground floor is to the neighborhood. By focusing on the first 20 vertical feet of your building, you can establish a strong sense of place and create a wonderful asset.
The height of the ground floor has a great impact on the experience of the building both from the sidewalk and from the inside. Take a full 20 feet for your ground floor if you can. This allows for the most flexible street level, one that lends itself to a rich mix of uses and can accommodate interesting double-height spaces. If a floor-to-floor height of 20 feet is not available, get as much as you can. If possible, don’t go below 12 feet, which can still accommodate vibrant retail stores or an elevated residential unit.
2- Retail flexibility
Because buildings have a long lifespan, it is important to make a ground floor that is not only a contemporary amenity, but also adaptable over time. For example, a new building in a transitioning neighborhood may not be able to support traditional retail when it first opens. The needs and fortunes of communities can change dramatically. Build a flexible ground floor with small spaces that can stand on their own (great for independent local businesses) and can eventually be joined together to create larger spaces for more established tenants.
3- Space for People
Whatever the height of the ground floor, look for opportunities to set the building back from the street or widen the sidewalk, or both, if possible. This additional space expands the public realm, making it more inviting and hospitable to passers-by.
The ample space in this area gives you the opportunity to provide cafe seating, bike parking, and other elements that connect the building and its occupants to the neighborhood. On a storefront, this active space is where tenants can express themselves and attract people. Provide space for stores and restaurants to be customized with seating, signage, and other displays. Over time, this customizable zone between the edge of the building and the public space will evolve and a varied and organic street frontage will emerge.
4- Residential Tickets
Cladding the edge of a building with residential uses adds vibrancy on a small scale with a big payoff. Stoops connect and protect, linking living spaces to the larger world while smoothing the transition between each home and the public realm.
A riff on porch culture Steps create opportunities for brief, incidental social encounters. In doing so, they extend the residents’ sense of ownership and care to the surrounding neighborhood.
A defining quality of steps is a clear perimeter, which can be created with a height differential, a railing, or a landscaped boundary. Steps can be opened to sidewalks, mid-block passageways, or patios, and can be combined with patios and balconies to offer a variety of semi-private outdoor spaces.
5- Visual activations
Not every site is set up for a bustling row of retail businesses, and often the edges of buildings must be converted to private uses. Without overtly interactive uses, a border can still offer visual engagement and interest, contributing to the urban landscape through color and pattern, interior or exterior lighting, views into a building or courtyard, and street plants. Even with challenging edges, there is always something a building can offer instead of turning its back on people outside.
The Q Zone: The ingredients of a great ground floor
One of our best tools for creating a successful ground floor is what we call the Q Zone; here, “Q” stands for peculiar. This is the place, a liminal space between the public realm, the property line and the edge of the building, for users to leave their marks. If you “max out” your site by building to the property line and reserving no additional height for your ground floor, there is no Q Zone, no wiggle room for the unexpected to invigorate and differentiate a street, making it a place. where people want to spend time and energy. The Q Zone also has an impact on the ground level. The variation in volume on the ground floor can allow the building above to “push” and “pull” in places, to make terraces, balconies, mezzanines, and townhouse entrances possible.
Use all dimensions to create a Q zone
Height. Ground floor heights are crucial. Higher ground floors can accommodate a wider range of uses and add more interest and flexibility to your unit types. At a minimum, you need 12 feet for a vibrant retail or residential unit with a porch that connects to the sidewalk. At 17 feet, you can incorporate a mezzanine, and at 20 feet you could include two-story townhouses, offices, or an airy loft-like creative space. In large-scale buildings, it may be appropriate to provide a range of heights throughout the ground floor to accommodate a variety of uses, accommodate level change and add dynamism.
Depth. It is important to make room for people along the edge of the building. Some sites may include a generous sidewalk, but on others, you may need to create one yourself. Set the building back, relinquishing part of its site to the public realm, to enable more defined entrances, public seating, residential stairways, retail merchandising, and street plants. Preserving this space rather than building all the way to the edge of its site elevates the overall experience along the street and establishes the building as an attractive location and asset to the area. You don’t need to back out the entire building for this to work. With a higher floor-to-floor height, the ground floor setback creates a covered active edge and retains usable space on upper floors.
Width. Design a ground floor so it can be divided into smaller, more affordable spaces or joined together to create larger, more prominent spaces. To achieve this, we often take advantage of the structural column grid to create bays along the store front. Within the bays, we leave room for the tenant to add well-lit signage, seating or displays and include freshly paintable wooden storefronts when new business arrives.
This essay is an excerpt from 9 Ways to Make Homes for People (Gold Editions).