I am constantly considering the human user aspects of applications and systems. How do I bolster activity and desired interactions? How can I help the user achieve their intended goal for using the application? I think this focus on human interaction bleeds over to another subject matter: urban design. As a designer, it seems critical that we consider the areas we inhabit or tend to visit more frequently, and how these areas bolster or hinder our social activity. I’m curious, so I took some time to reflect on the design of two well-known local areas.
Software designers work to maximize an application’s usability. But what makes a city space well-designed for human interaction and “usability”? What elements should be included? Retail? Restaurants? Sidewalks? I would argue that all are important. But how should they be distributed? Let’s start by looking at a notable area right here in Saint Louis: the Delmar Loop.
From the Street
This area includes restaurants, retail, and of course, roadways. But, is that all it takes to create an effective city space? Let’s look at another area just a few miles away: Brentwood Boulevard.
Again, this space contains all of the same elements: restaurants, retail and roadways. However, something is clearly different in this photograph: the lack of pedestrian activity and spaces conducive to human interaction. Why is that? To get a better idea, let’s compare the same areas from a different vantage point.
From the Sky
The image above depicts the same Delmar intersection shown in the street-view photograph. In yellow are the places we visit: restaurants, retail, markets, etc. In blue are the streets. Note the geometry of the streets – the hard angles designed to slow cars as they near intersections. Note the parking space behind the buildings – how they induce pedestrian activity in front. Also, note how buildings line up, creating a cohesive sense of place.
The Delmar Loop is considered to be a sociopetal location. In other words, it is a place conducive for human interaction. Contrary to a sociopetal location is a sociofugal location: a place that curbs (no pun intended) social interaction. For more on proxemics, check out: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxemics
This image depicts the Brentwood Boulevard intersection. In this case, note the wide angles of the streets, designed for the velocity of cars. Note the setback of shops from the street, designed to allow parking in front – not pedestrian areas or social interaction. In both cases, the design of this space is focused primarily on vehicles.
Why is it important to take note of the design of public spaces? Places designed for people fulfill a necessary social need that we all have. They are interesting. They are the places we talk about. They are the places we want to show off to our out-of-town visitors. Most importantly, they are the places that give our city an identity.
That said, think of your favorite places. Are they places designed for people? What characteristics make them your favorite? How do you feel when you are there?
Consider this the next time you find yourself out and about. Consider this when you make your next decision on where to eat or shop. Consider this when you hear recommendations on where to go. Most of all, consider how the places you visit are designed to facilitate human interaction.
To read more on the subject, check out www.urbanophile.com/ , americancity.org/ , or www.thepolisblog.org/
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