Kevin Case / Flickr

Can you say, street-level windows?

Some streets are bound to attract more foot traffic than others simply based on where they’re located. Maybe there’s a metro stop nearby. Maybe they lead to a cluster of offices or businesses. Maybe a lot of people call these streets home. These streets draw loads of foot traffic regardless of their general appearance. We all have to live, work, and shop somewhere.

What’s less clear is how much certain physical elements of the street itself might appeal to pedestrians over and above these location-based qualities. Perhaps there’s a sidewalk profile of windows and awnings and benches that just speaks to our shoes. (You’re welcome for that tag line, future creators of Solemate.com.) In other words, can you design a street to be more walkable, and if so, which design elements might you include?

A group of researchers offers an answer to that very question in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Planning Education and Research—at least as far as New York City streets are concerned.

They counted the number of pedestrians on 588 blocks across the city, sampling streets in a mixture of densities (low and high), districts (residential, commercial, manufacturing), and destinations (proximity to rail transit, and accessible amenities as per Walk Score). They then identified 20 possible streetscape features that might beckon to walkers. These included everything from building age and height and color to the presence of courtyards and outdoor dining and public art.

After controlling for the fact that some streets have more (or less) foot traffic based simply on location qualities, the researchers pinpointed three of these 20 street design features that remained significantly correlated to pedestrian counts:

  1. Active uses. These were streets with lots of high-traffic buildings (defined as a place that at more than five people entered or exited during the observation period) or active fixtures (such as parks, restaurants, schools, and the like) relative to their amount of inactive features (such as parking lots, churches, or construction sites).
  2. Street furniture or items. Here the researchers considered very interactive elements (such as tables and chairs, benches, vendors, ATMs, bus stops, parking meters, and bike racks) as well as more inert objects (such as street lights, fire hydrants, trash cans, newspaper or mail boxes).
  3. First-floor windows. This design feature was defined as the average proportion of the ground floor covered in windows. It remained significant even after controlling for the presence of retailers on the ground floor—meaning the appeal likely goes beyond window-shopping.
First-floor window coverage mattered to walkability on New York City streets. (Purciel & Marrone 2006, via Ewing et al 2015)

To be sure, it’s hard to isolate the individual factors that make a street particularly pleasant. As much as street furniture might matter, you can’t just line a city sidewalk with ATMs and benches and expect pedestrians to swoon. Love is about the whole package. But as far as streetscape design goes, these three elements stand out above the others. The researchers conclude:

This is a novel finding that suggests that urban design generally, and streetscapes in particular, have a significant influence on pedestrian activity.

“Basically, we are saying that some streets have more pedestrian traffic than others based on the ‘D’s’ of the quarter-mile around them and the ‘D’s’ of the block face itself,” first author and planning scholar Reid Ewing of the University of Utah tells CityLab, referring to the location-based factors like density, destination, and diversity of uses. “But that some of the variance unexplained by these variables can be explained by the three design variables.”

One looming caveat to the work is how pedestrians can know that a specific street has these design elements before turning down it. Standing at a street corner calculating first-floor window ratios would qualify as weird even by the outlier standards of New York City sidewalk behavior. Future work might find out which streets pedestrians choose among several that might suit their daily trips, as a way of teasing out appeal by comparison.

The study’s other limitations include a low number of pedestrian counts: the researchers only made four passes per block. With streets busier than any other U.S. city, New York also might not be the most representative sample. That said, Ewing and another research group also reached similar findings after a study of streets in Salt Lake City—with elements like first-floor windows and active uses showing a significant link to walking there, too. The foot knows what it wants.

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