In Jane’s shoes and through Jane’s eyes, #2

The unpredictability of urban sidewalks was an attraction to Jane  Jacobs. As we started our recent Jane’s Walk, we noted elements that add ‘clutter’ to the sidewalk – flower pots and standing signs. They interrupt the flow of a sidewalk and in doing so slow the movement. They are like sidewalk versions of traffic calming. People sometimes have to pause, let another person step around the standing sign or pot on the walkway.
 
sidewalk versions of traffic calming

sidewalk versions of traffic calming

 As an urban planner on our walk noted, you have to be careful to ensure that those sidewalk amenities don’t impede wheelchairs, or the ability of a couple to walk side-by-side. But as long as those fundamentals are in place, clutter creates interest. Our eyes are constantly roaming, from a sandwich board to a window display to a doorway to people passing by. A roaming eye, looking for items of interest.

Window shopping plays a significant role in the sidewalk experience – and by shopping, I mean simply the search for interest. We scan coffee shop windows, as we do retail stores, to get a quick take on what or who’s inside, what might be of interest.

Window Shopping Sidewalk Experiences

Window Shopping Sidewalk Experiences

 Had she been with us, one thing Jane Jacobs would have noticed is the proliferation of tinted and mirrored glass at the street level. How many of us feel comfortable being on the ‘watched’ side of one-way glass?
Sidewalk Ballet

Sidewalk Ballet

 Our short Jane’s Walk stopped a number of times to wonder what might be going on behind the mirrored glass at street level. The answers were sometimes ironic. We found, for example, a community drop-in centre that is trying to support the integration of people with development disabilities. From behind mirrored glass.
 
A member of our walk group had to tell us that behind the mirrored glass was an inviting, friendly reading room, open to everyone. Who would know?
 
Mirrored windows are one kind of blank space that discourages human interaction, and therefore interrupt what Jacobs called the ‘sidewalk ballet.’ Other interrupters we noticed were lots without buildings (including surface parking lots) and large blank building walls.
 
Scale is so important in a downtown urban environment. The most vibrant areas on our walk were those built on an early 20th century scale, featuring small building frontages, resulting in an abundance of doorways and windows.
 
We passed one very interesting and positive adaptation to the blank wall scenario. A nightclub with its blank back to the street features a ‘trompe l’oeil’ mural called Gallery Concept by artist Michael Downs. Here, the blank spaces are painted as shop and gallery windows.
Faux Windows

Faux Windows

The mural even extends to the ‘second floor’ heights of this building, with very realistic depictions of small scale windows with the curtains partially pulled. The effect is a warm and friendly ‘presence’ on the street, rather than the cold blank that would otherwise be there.

Our minds on the interplay of light and dark, we ended this Jane’s Walk at a new parking garage and transit terminal. A city-centre transit hub at ground level is covered by a multi-level concrete car parking structure. It’s an efficient use of space, with two challenges.
 
When asked, no one in our walking group had actually ventured into the transit bus area on the ground level. We stood back and wondered why, then understood. From the outside, in natural light, the bus stop area under the parkade looks dark and forboding. In other words, to most people’s instictive reaction, it looks dangerous.
Dark and Light

Dark and Light

When we walked in, though, we got another perspective. From the inside, it seems well lit and features high ceilings with good ventilation so the bus exhaust doesn’t accumulate. The design challenge – how to get people to see, literally, that the transit area is not so dark?

 At the corners of the structure, too, we noticed another mirrored glass challenge. The stairwell glass is heavily tinted. Which means if you are returning to the structure to pick up your car, you don’t know who is in those stairwells, or what they are doing. An intimidation factor, no doubt.
 
What do people think, feel, experience when they walk a downtown area? That was something that was always on the mind of Jane Jacobs. We discovered a few examples on one Jane’s Walk, in one small city. Wouldn’t it be great if all urban plans, all building designs, were tested in a combination of real life and simulated walk-throughs? The sensory experience is it’s all about in creating vibrant downtowns.
downtown area - design challenge

downtown area – design challenge

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