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Can you use math to create great urbanism?

August 20, 2015

By Craig Lewis

The key to people-oriented places is contained within the geometry of a simple right triangle

If there is one important technique to understand when it comes to great urbanism, it’s the golden triangle. This strategy, when properly configured, cuts across all cultures and architectural styles. It’s easy to define, simple to construct, and operationally intuitive. Yet, why does this basic principle get violated time and time again?

I believe it starts with a patent misunderstanding of what walkable urbanism truly means. Most people assume that a great street must be constructed using gold-plated design—all brick sidewalks, antique-finished street lights, glossy wayfinding, and these days, integrated bio-retention areas. Cities and business districts spend millions of dollars on such improvements in the hopes of attracting investment back to an area. And yet, far too often, efforts seem lopsided—too much public investment with little to no commitment from the private sector. Quid pro quo is critical to revitalizing business districts, and getting it right from the beginning is equally important in new village centers.

The golden triangle (not to be confused with the anti-pedestrian sight distance triangle appropriated for automobile safety) is the intersection of where the public and private realms meet. Very simply, the golden triangles’ height consists of the fronting building facade—typically the first story and a half—and its integral use(s). The base ties together the public realm including the width of the sidewalk; pedestrian amenities (seating and streetscaping); bicycle amenities such as bike parking and travel ways; and on-street parking.

So what can we do to focus on the golden triangle and create a great urban space? Fortunately, keeping just four key elements in mind can help.

  • On-Street Parking: I can’t emphasize enough how important on-street parking is to a walkable, urban environment. It does two things: first, it provides the perception of convenient parking, helping to level the playing field with the suburban shopping centers that give away free parking. Second, it provides a continuous buffer between moving cars and people.
  • Sidewalks: As the picture featured here from Ann Arbor, Michigan shows, sidewalks don’t have to be all brick. Simple concrete will do just fine as long as you cover them with activity—moveable chairs and tables, pedestrian signage, outdoor displays, landscaping, and of course, people—lots and lots of people. The sidewalks need to be wide enough to accommodate a number of activities, but not so wide that they look bare without it.
  • Ground Floor Transparency: Windows and doors are essential to encouraging pedestrians on their journey. As humans, we’re easily bored and, if not engaged, will find other routes if storefronts are dark and uninviting. Blank walls are the same thing—stark and unappealing. By simply using storefront glazing, light from the inside is transmitted to the sidewalk area at night, lighting the pathway to provide passersby’s with a connection to the activity on the inside, softening  the visual aesthetics.
  • Uses and Activities: Consistent activity from shops, restaurants, and entertainment is so critical to street life that the money spent on just setting up shop is actually even more important than spending millions on a streetscape project. In fact, we have probably all been to lots of urban areas that feature smaller sidewalks (like Charleston, SC) or poor streetscape amenities (like University Hill in Seattle, WA), and yet they were thriving places that we enjoyed visiting. Why? Because use trumps infrastructure nearly every time.

Building height above the first story, and the residents and/or employees that come with it, can be an asset for the success of great urban areas—but it isn’t critical. In my town, for example (Davidson, NC) many buildings are only one story-and yet, it has one of the best small town main streets in the state, including a Walk Score of 67.

It should come as no surprise that places with great urbanism are locations of choice for employers and retailers alike. Living in or near great urbanism increases a home’s “Walk Score," a ranking that scores homes and neighborhoods according to their access to public transit, better commutes, and proximity to other people and active places. Higher Walk Scores have been positively correlated with increased home values because walkability directly translates to happier, healthier, more sustainable lifestyles [1].

In addition, Smart Growth America, in partnership with Cushman & Wakefield and the George Washington University School of Business’ Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, documented strong preferences by both small and large employers to be in or near these vibrant, walkable places. State Farms’ consolidation of their regional headquarters in Atlanta, Phoenix, and Dallas—from suburban locations into walkable urban places—further punctuates this point. 

Whether it’s New York City, Rome, London, Barcelona, Boston, Austin, or even little Davidson, NC, walkable urban places are leading the economy. And, the key ingredient to their success as people-oriented places is all contained within the geometry of a simple right triangle.

[1]  As defined from the website.

  • Craig Lewis

    Craig has more than 30 years of award-winning experience implementing walkable, vibrant urbanism in hundreds of communities throughout North America.

    Contact Craig
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