Urban streets need proper care and feeding

Blaine Weber
By Blaine Weber

Blaine Weber passed away in March 2023. He retired from Weber Thompson in March 2022, after dedicating 35 years to mentoring a generation of designers. Blaine will be remembered as a leader, designer, mentor, and friend who inspired everyone to speak up and believed that everyone had something valuable to contribute to the firm. His legacy will continue to resonate with the entire professional community and everyone at Weber Thompson.

Blaine is a passionate evangelist for urban living and the design and development of high-rise residential and mixed-use towers. He is a published author of numerous local and national articles on the subject. Blaine’s passion for re-invention is nourished by incessant participation in many forums for innovation and ideas. In 2006, Seattle Magazine selected Mr. Weber as: “One of 18 City Shapers, key players that are creating a new Emerald City”.

The content of this article was originally published in The Puget Sound Business Journal on Sep 28, 2003.

Great cities are made up of great streets. Sidewalks and streets are ubiquitous, and yet, daily we take them for granted. In the city, streets provide the backdrop for everyday life. They are the greatest source of open space in our urban centers and they are communication channels for connecting people, services and places.

The quality of the street determines the vitality of a neighborhood, and the richness of the pedestrian experience. The street, the sidewalk and the businesses that depend on the public operate much like an ecosystem: the quality of each is dependent on the quality of the other.

The most essential function of a street or sidewalk is to provide safety for its users. A well-used city street with activated sidewalks will provide safety, whereas a deserted streetscape will attract anti-social or even criminal behavior. Active and safe streets promote businesses that help activate the public realm as well as facilitate chance encounters between people that help to form community.

Architects can help activate the sidewalk, and energize the community, by focusing “beyond the building,” in consideration of good urban design fundamentals. To do this, a building must be anchored in time and place. A new building must be also sympathetic with existing urban patterns, to the rhythm and context of it surroundings, and to the history through which a place has evolved. When there is a relationship to the existing vocabulary of a site, the street is more prone to activation because the buildings reinforce a sense of community through continuity and harmony.

It is the first 16 feet of a structure that is most perceptible to the pedestrian. Activating the sidewalk begins by paying attention to the essential nature of a site, but the most crucial design influence happens at eye-level where scale and detail is most experienced. Architects must pay special attention to this zone, since this is the part of a structure that most determines how a building is perceived by the pedestrian. This includes not only the building, but the streetscape elements that anchor the building to its site.

Nothing destroys the quality of the public realm faster than a block-front that closes itself off from the street. Active storefronts put eyes on the street from within, enhancing the street’s safety, and create visual interest and intrigue from the vantage of the sidewalk. Inviting entries, large and friendly storefronts containing displays of interesting goods, vibrant colors and warm lighting are vital to activating the sidewalk because they create interest and invitation. Good retail requires tall ceilings, inviting entries, and overhead weather protection. Good storefront design means large, well-lighted display windows with clean and simply detailed fenestration that allows rotating merchandise to be the focus. It means high-quality graphic standards that encourage engaging signage like banners and pendants instead of obnoxious light boxes and backlit awnings.

The sidewalk is a social zone where one can walk to a destination or leisurely explore and discover. It is also a place to meet others from the community in scheduled and chance encounters. A well-designed sidewalk is also a place to pause and rest or reflect. Sidewalks should be wide enough not only for people to pass, but with enough space to allow for those physical elements that turn a street into an experience. These include cafe tables, benches, bike racks, bollards, bus shelters, planters, paving, water features, pocket parks, plazas, way-finding signage, drinking fountains, kiosks, pedestrian light poles, litter receptacles, newspaper boxes, signage and last but not least: public art.

Landscaping on the street is one of the most humanizing elements of the city. Every sidewalk should have a space for greenery to soften the hard edges of buildings with planting strips, hanging baskets and trees that help define and demark the pedestrian zone from the vehicular zone. All of these elements compose the streetscape and should work in concert to create an inviting and pleasant pedestrian experience.

An urban center is often a melting pot of various cultures, ages, and economic groups that manage to support a vital community. This fosters a range of uses with many different stores, bars, restaurants and experiences catering to different lifestyles and invites local residents and strangers to cross paths — vital to a healthy street. Anyone who has walked Robson Street in Vancouver, B.C., First Avenue in Seattle, Newbury Street in Boston or Filmore Street in San Francisco understands the importance of this relationship. Diversity also fosters nighttime use that is vital to safety in the city.

Great cities’ most vital organs are its great streets and sidewalks. Good design seeks to engage the pedestrian with comfort and safety, visual delight, and urban design that helps to create a pleasant street experience. When we pay attention to urban design fundamentals that help activate and bring life to our sidewalks, we not only help to build a better street, we help to build a better city.

Filed under Advocacy