This research project focuses on an important but overlooked element of walkable and sustainable cities: the relation between buildings and public space. Over fifty years ago, prominent American urbanist Jane Jacobs already recognized that most of the urban ballet in vibrant cities play out on the ground floor – more specifically, at the threshold of buildings and streets. In 1961, she writes: “Think of a city, and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.” Jacobs opened designers and planners’ eyes: vibrant cities need vibrant streets, and those streets depend on close interaction with the buildings that line them.
Her message soon caught on. Over the years, scholars and designers across the Atlantic concurred with Jacobs, from Christopher Alexander, William Whyte and Allan Jacobs in America to Gordon Cullen and Jan Gehl in Europe. Professionals and administrators followed in their tracks. Today, every self-respecting city has codified the benefits of interactive street frontages into design guidelines, and ground floor transparency features on most designers’ wish lists.
However, this seeming consensus seems to have little effect in most Western cities. Many street level facades still don’t interact with public space, and too many sidewalks are lined by fences, lots and walls. If anything, our eye-level encounters with buildings have only gotten worse over the past decades. New buildings are consistently more distant toward public space, and attractive shop windows have become an endangered species. Only a third of the quirky New York storefronts photographed by James and Karla Murray in 2008 for their best-selling book “Store Front: the Disappearing Face of New York” still stand today.
Instead of preaching the benefits of active frontages to the converted, this project studies why interesting and interactive street frontages are under threat, and what we can do to turn the tide. Urban scholars may agree what they are fighting for in their quest for interactive frontages, but no one seems to understand of what they are fighting against. Without knowing why our streets are lined by inactive buildings in the first place, how could we ever escape our ground floor stalemate? By demonstrating the forces and patterns behind frontage deactivation in Europe and North America, this research project will shift and inform the debate on their reactivation.
A detailed study of a century of transformation of street frontages in four representative cities in Canada, the United States, England and The Netherlands unveils an unprecedented insight on how the interplay between the changing ground floor economy, new technology, urban planning and social circumstances have influenced frontages. This project specifically studies their urban cores, as the most significant transformation has occurred here. The case studies will demonstrate that the deteriorating relationship between buildings and streets goes far deeper than the commonly assumed explosive mixture of automobility and Modernism. Instead, frontages represent an intricately connected ecosystem of single agent decisions responding to external forces, behaving in common and recognizable patterns that can inform policy and design.
This project is based on my dissertation at the University of Michigan, for which I developed a methdology to study frontage transformation. The results of this dissertation have been published in Urban Design International in 2016. With the new case studies, the work will ultimately be published as a book. Stay posted!
Urban designers focus on public space and people, but forget the key role of frontages in enlivening this space with people.
A century of frontage transformation in The Hague.