Activating the Edges: How to create living, active streets
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
A famous skyline can evoke rich associations and set the imagination free, but the true experience of a city lies in its streets. Early humans evolved to see the first 20 feet in front of, above, and around them so they could spot potential threats in the landscape. In our modern urban environment, we still experience buildings and places that way. While aerial photographs and Google Earth imagery are useful for reference, the main experience of a building’s exterior is what we walk past on the street, up to about the second or third floor. The height of a building doesn’t matter when the street experience is rich and accessible.
Activating the edges means avoiding quiet zones where dynamic uses should prevail. Prioritize interactive uses—common spaces, courtyards, entrances, or seating—in the best areas where the building meets the curb to ensure lively interaction between the building and the public space.
Minimize disruption to public life when placing required elements such as driveways, service doors and transformers. For example, in a large building, place the driveway away from the main pedestrian street. Tuck the garage out of sight and wrap it around houses or common areas, avoiding empty zones or places where people aren’t a priority. Engagement edges create a more interesting, interactive, and safer streetscape around your property.
1- Large ground floors
Walkable urbanism takes place where pavement and buildings touch and interact. We measure a building’s success by how lively and how important the ground floor is to the neighborhood. By focusing on the first 20 vertical feet of your building, you can develop a strong sense of place and create a wonderful resource.
The height of the ground floor has a major impact on the experience of the building both from the sidewalk and from 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 20 feet of floor height isn’t available, get as much as you can. If possible, don’t drop below 12 feet, which can still support a brisk retail or elevated housing unit.
2- Retail flexibility
Because buildings have long lifespans, it is important to create a ground floor that is not only a contemporary convenience, but also adaptable over time. For example, a new building in a changing neighborhood may not be able to support traditional retail when it opens. The needs and fate of communities can change drastically. Build a flexible ground floor with small spaces that can stand on their own – ideal for independent local businesses – and eventually be linked together to create larger spaces for established tenants.
3- Space for people
Regardless of the ground floor height, you should look for ways to set the building back from the street or widen the sidewalk—or both, if possible. This extra space increases the public area, making it more welcoming and hospitable to passers-by.
Sufficient space in this zone gives you the opportunity to provide places for cafes, bicycle parking and other elements that connect the building and its occupants with the neighborhood. On a retail facade, this active space is where tenants can express themselves and attract people. Provides space for shops and restaurants that can be personalized with seating, signage and other displays. Over time, this adaptable zone between the edge of the building and the public space will evolve, creating a varied and organic street frontage.
4- residential stairs
Lining a building edge with residential uses adds vibrancy on a small scale with big payoff. Connecting and protecting, Stoops connect living spaces to the larger world while softening the transition between each home and the public realm.
A riff on the porch culture creates opportunities for brief, casual social encounters. In doing so, they increase the sense of personal responsibility of the residents and take care of the surrounding neighborhood.
A defining quality of transitions is a clear perimeter, which can be created with a riser, railing, or landscaped boundary. Stoops can open onto sidewalks, mid-block passages, or courtyards, and combine with terraces and balconies to provide a variety of semi-private outdoor spaces.
5- Visual activations
Not every location is ripe for a busy retail line, and building edges often have to accommodate residential uses. Without overtly interactive uses, an edge can still provide visual engagement and interest, contributing to the streetscape through color and pattern, interior or exterior lighting, a view into a building or courtyard, and street planting. Even with challenging edges, a building can always offer something rather than turning its back on the people outside.
The Q-Zone: The makings 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 quirky. This is the place—a boundary between the public realm, the property line, and the edge of the building—where users can leave their mark. If you “maximize” your location by building to the lot line and not reserving extra height for your ground floor, there is no Q-Zone, no scope for the unexpected to enliven and differentiate a street and make it a place do where people want to spend time and energy. The Q Zone also has an effect above the ground. By varying the volume on the ground floor, the building above can “push” and “pull” in places to allow for terraces, balconies, mezzanines and stair treads.
Use all dimensions to create a Q-Zone
Height. The height of the ground floor is crucial. Higher ground floors accommodate a wider range of uses and add interest and flexibility to your unit types. For a lively retail or residential unit with a staircase that connects to the sidewalk, you need at least 12 feet. At 17ft, you can add a mezzanine, and at 20ft, you can include two-story townhomes, offices, or an airy, loft-style creative space. In large buildings, it may be appropriate to have different heights along the ground floor to accommodate a variety of uses, to even out height differences and to add dynamism.
Depth. It is important to make room for people along the edge of the building. Some locations may have a generous sidewalk, while others may require you to create one yourself. Set the building back and give up some of your site to the public domain to allow for more defined entrances, public seating, residential stairways, retail outlets and street planting. Maintaining this space rather than building to the edge of your property will increase the overall experience along the street and establish the building as an attractive site and asset. You don’t have to reset the whole building for this. With a higher storey height, setting the ground floor back creates a covered active edge and preserves the usable space on the upper floors.
Broad. Design a ground floor so that it can be divided into smaller, more affordable spaces or connected to form larger, more prominent spaces. To achieve this we often use the structural column grid to create bays along the storefront. Within the bays we leave space for the tenant to add well-lit signage, seating or displays, and include wooden facades that can be freshly painted when a new business moves in.
This essay is an excerpt from 9 Ways to Make Housing for People (Oro Editions).