As I strolled San Francisco last week I passed a giant building under construction. The building takes up almost an entire block with a uniform facade painted an odd shade of brown. To its right is another new building, this one gray, but with an equally bland facade. My first question was what the buildings were going to be used for. My second was why they made the buildings so uniform and boring. It’s not just about aesthetics: research shows that when a street has large, uniform facades, people walk through the street much quicker, and enjoy the walk much less. Streets with smaller facades and more functions per block inspire people to linger, gather and enjoy the scene.
I learned of this phenomenon in a wonderful book called Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. As the title suggests, the book talks about different ways that urban design can impact quality of life and emotional well-being. The book is full of interesting nuggets, from research on the proper distance between your house and your bus stop, to an entire section on piazzas. This facade research stood out to me, though, because it’s such a common trait of modern architecture. Think of all the blocks now dominated by gigantic, big box stores that stretch and stretch and stretch. Think of all the huge apartment buildings that take up entire blocks. Think of the cold, empty spaces that you encounter as you walk through a modern city.
Much of the research on facades comes from Jan Gehl, a Danish urban design consultant and architect. Her studies show that people find it much more uplifting to walk through streets with variety in their facades. Compare the picture above to this other picture from San Francisco, this time from the Castro neighborhood. Which street would you rather walk down? Which would you rather explore? Where would you rather sit and talk to your friends?
Studies like Gehl’s can really impact how cities shape their world. For example, Denmark now regulates where banks open their new branches, to make sure they don’t affect a main city street that thrives off a flurry of activity and movement. New York City has limited the amount of ground floor space for new stores on the Upper West Side, ensuring that streets maintain a variety of shapes, openings and varieties. Vancouver regulates its big box stores to make sure that their design fits with how the city wants its inhabitants to experience their surroundings.
As our cities continue to evolve, we’ll need to keep an eye on the way that our architectural and design choices can impact the quality of lives. Bigger isn’t always better. Taller isn’t always smarter. And even as big box retail and chain restaurants continue to grow, we must think of ways to make big business act small.