Sensory Urbanism - Crafting Places to Delight

Steve Mouzon has started a fascinating discussion of his proposal for a new metric of walkability, Walk Appeal. I summed up the conversation previously, but I wanted to take a moment to expound on some of the thoughts I have been having on this topic.

A lot of the previous discussion has focused on what I would classify as sensory criteria - strategies to delight the senses. I wanted to explore this a little further to try and develop a theory of Sensory Urbanism. Since others have done a good job covering various strategies for providing a place with visual delight, I won’t try to discuss specifics. My goal with this post is to provide a broader, more macro level view of these concepts and try to tie everything together.

Delightful Sights

If the overall theme of Walk Appeal is delight then the foremost factor in creating the appeal is visual . Clearly, the primary sensory experience of place is visual. A place is primarily defined by what we see. Visual delight is what Steve Mouzon is exploring in 5 of his 6 initial criteria for making places with high Walk Appeal:

  • View Changes

  • Street Enclosure

  • Window of View

  • Goals in the Middle Distance

  • Turning the Corner

Likewise, visual delight makes a strong showing in Steve Mouzon’s follow up on immeasurable factors with 3 out of 6:

  • Lovable Things Along the Way

  • Magic of the City

  • Nature

Kevin Klinkenberg sums it up with one word: Beauty.

I think these are all different aspects of the same thing - visual delight. What we see has a huge impact on our perception of a place. Concepts such as enclosure, views, repetition, and variation are strategies to ensure a place has visual impact.

I think it is important to remember the difference between the goal (visual delight) and the strategy (for example, street enclosure). The goal is the standard by which a place and a strategy are judged while the strategy is an implementation detail of the goal. One of the things that has already been mentioned by Kaid Benfield is the idea that we don’t want to get too caught up in the specific formulas for visual delight (like the 70% glazing requirement at street level). I agree - we don’t want to get so caught up in the formula that we forget the overarching goal. However, the formulas and rules of thumb are enlightening as proven strategies to achieve that goal. If we keep the goal foremost in our mind, we can continue to effectively use the accumulated knowledge of the industry to help achieve the goal while also continually evaluating whether these strategies actually help accomplish our intentions or not. It really is a scale issue. We have to remember the big picture while we are working out the minute details. My goal here is to add clarity to the big picture.

Much of the conversation so far has been very focused on the visual aspect of Walk Appeal. This is appropriate as it is the most important factor. However, I’d like to expand the criteria to encompass the full spectrum of sensory experience. Delighting one sense is good. But delighting many senses is even better.

Delightful Sounds

I believe that the secondary sensory experience of place is auditory. While not quite as prominent as the visual, sound is an integral part of the experience of place. The auditory experience can be quite negative or quite positive. Our first goal should be to mitigate the negative. This can mean trying to mask the overwhelming sounds of traffic or muffling the noise of construction. Once we have dealt with the negative sounds, we can focus on creating sounds that delight. Moving water is a universally compelling sound but there are other sounds that make a place delightful. Church bells, wind chimes, the sounds of human interaction, and street music are just some of the sounds that can make the experience of a place that much more delightful and unique.

Delightful Smells

Third on the list is the experience of smell. Smell can be a strong factor, both negatively and positively. A place that smells of sewer all the time will have extremely low Walk Appeal regardless of how it scores in the other senses. But there are positive smells as well. The sweet aroma from blooming flowers or the delicious smell of food cooking can be quite compelling. As with sounds, we need to ensure that negative odors are adequately mitigated first and then we can focus on how to imbue a place with the types of smells that delight.

Delightful Touch

Fourth is the experience of feel. Architects tend to be quite tactile. We like to touch and feel materials. Go to any product presentation and see if the architects can keep their hands off the samples to see what I mean. While architects might tend towards the tactile, I believe that touch can be a powerful factor for everyone. We interact with places through touch in a wide variety of ways. Some materials just call out to be touched. Other times we are interacting with the place in a functional way - grabbing hand rails, sitting on benches, opening doors, etc.

We can address the tactile experience in various ways. First I would suggest we make all necessary tactile interactions as delightful as possible. This means making things comfortable. While we should always provide places to sit and rest, those places should also be comfortable. Railings, door knobs, walk buttons, and other elements we interact with physically should be selected with thought to their tactile delight. Second, I would suggest that using materials that are delightful to touch is a great way to increase the sensory experience of place. These materials should be placed at the human level to encourage reaching out a touching them. This seems especially effective with natural materials that have a lot of texture.

The sense of feel also encompasses thermal comfort. This is extremely important (perhaps more than smell) as places that are too hot or too cold are vastly less walkable than places where you can feel comfortable. This is a very climate sensitive criteria and the design of our public spaces needs to be calibrated to the local climate. In hot climates, providing shade and encouraging air movement helps mitigate thermal discomfort. In cool climates, providing access to the warming sun will be a vital strategy. Beyond just accommodating thermal conditions, we should look to address other climate conditions as well. For example, in places that receive a lot of rain we can focus on providing shelter through various strategies such as arcades or awnings.

Delightful Tastes

Finally, does taste have an impact on our experience of place? This is perhaps the weakest sensory experience of place, but I believe it is still important. Think about travel for a moment. Have you really experienced a place if you haven’t tasted its food? Can you visit Rome without associating it with gelato? Have you really experienced Paris if you haven’t had a baguette or a pastry? While taste might not be a primary factor in experiencing place on a micro level it is definitely tied up with the idea of place at a macro, cultural level.

Crafting Places to Delight

I believe that a big part of Walk Appeal is Sensory Urbanism. Crafting places that delight the senses is a sure way to increase Walk Appeal. The more senses that we can address through design, the better appeal a place will have. There are other factors as well such as a perception of safety (informed by sensory data but really psychological in nature) or human activity (social or task oriented in nature) but crafting places that delight the senses is the first and most important strategy for creating Walk Appeal.

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