I recently picked up a coffee table book at an architecture bookstore in LA, named Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City by Anne Mikoleit and Mortitz Purckhauer. This is a great book for city lovers; it simply lists one hundred facts about the city operates, and how people use it. Some will be very familiar to an urban designer, such as “pedestrians are potential buyers”, but others are obviously amusing, like “people walk in the sunshine,” and “snack stands smell of food.” Of course, there is a breadth of meaningful design advice behind these; here is preview:
#01: People walk in the sunshine: “Man mistrusts many things, but he will follow the sun blindly…Alongside the pulsing reactions to the dictatorial presence of the sun, its influence has long become a decisive advantage for shops’ positions.”
People walk, and when they do they follow the sun, crossing streets back and forth again. This has major implications on the urban elements that depend on the pedestrian, especially stores, restaurants, and street vendors. Which of these benefits most from the wandering pedestrian? Street vendors, who can move their cart into the sun.
Lesson: When we decide where community facilities, commercial uses, and mobility networks should be located, don’t forget to check out the sun studies!
#13: Tourists carry bags: “Shopping bags are becoming more popular as objects of advertisement, since they are constantly present in the public realm, catching the eye of potential customers…the presence of the bag should not be underestimated as a means of orientation in the streetscape.”
Bags can tell you a lot about who a person is:tourist or a local. It tells us their interests: cooking, sports, or reading. Seeing people who share the same interests as us can make us feel comfortable and safe in the public realm. Branded packaging can help orient us: If I see someone with a Starbucks cup walking in a city I am not familiar, I immediately walk in the opposite direction. I will be bound to find one.
Lesson: Urban environments benefit greatly from a dense, and walkable commercial atmosphere.
#42: People walk more slowly in the afternoon: “While the feel of the city is dominated in the mornings by the strapping tempo of the working population, the afternoons bring ambling tourists (in every sense,) who seems intuitively to take their cues from window displays.”
There are many different types of people in this world, who are going different places, enjoy doing different things, and go out at different times of day. This is a gift to urban design because there is a constant user to maintain the activity and safety of the public realm.
Lesson: Make sure to provide a reason for users to be part of the urban development 24/7.
# 65: People sit with their back protected: “Human anatomy has evolved to possess a privileged front and a disadvantaged rear…our back remains in need of protection. It is for this reason that covering one’s back becomes a critical criterion in our choice of place to sit.”
We are evolutionary creatures. Successful urban design maintains a constant level of activity in the public realm, which means we need to provide a place for people to sit. People are comfortable sitting in different ways in different settings: older people love park benches, teenagers love lounging on the grass, and everyone loves sitting next to water.
Lesson: provide lots of seating, with a range of qualities, with interesting things to look at.
#80: Cobblestones tell stories: “The pedestrian is placed in dialogue with the past through encounters with textures and features…Rectangular cobblestones mediate between past and present, they carry hidden, lyrical accents that reveal other geographic and temporal associations.”
In short, the urban environment is made up of layers and layers of history that convey and represent the identity and culture of place. People look to these elements to define themselves and their own identity. At the very least, something like cobblestones can spark an urban users imagination and enjoyment of their environment.
Lesson: preserve local, historical, and unique urban features. This preserves local heritage and identity.
These lessons are invaluable in designing an urban environment. Truthfully, urban designers are armed with a toolbox of urban elements, as I call them: streets, blocks, plots, and buildings. We are responsible for putting them together in a way that leads to social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and economic regeneration. We also have our own experiences of the built environment (that are sometimes the most obvious) that affect our designs, but unfortunately these can be easily overlooked in favor of urban design theory or design guides. This book reminds us as we can draw our lines on AutoCad, juggling the many factors that influence a design, that sometimes those that we should remember most are the simple observations that we know just from being users of the city. The preface states, “Urban Code tries to move beyond passively looking at [city] scenes and to encourage a way of “seeing” into them – to understand the forces that shape a place, and how these forces lead to the creation of its special atmosphere.” It certainly does, definitely check it out!