Movement – a human need. Considerations to create an active city at eye level.
The Healthy City By Anna Louise Bradley 1 month ago
Imagine - you are gliding through your running route with agility and speed, your hair is wisping in the wind, sweat is perspiring down your face, you taste salt, your lungs expand deeply taking in air, you feel in control of where you’re going and connected to your body.

Now, you come to a crossroads. You don’t have long to decide, otherwise you risk adding precious seconds to your personal best pace.  You look to your left – a bleak scene with 6 meter tall grey pillars lining steep facades made up of brick and glass adjacent to a heavy traffic road. You look to your right – canopies lackadaisically sway in the breeze covering a pedestrian pathway bordered by terraced shops, cafes, and leafy green planters. It is pretty darn obvious which route you will choose, but what’s illogical is how often our cities lack these pleasant spaces that prioritise human scale. Through using the city at eye level methodology (see ref. I at the end of the article) we can motivate using the cityscape to enhance and stimulate our physical activity. 

We are built to move, to walk, to interact, as everyone can likely validate this daily human need, especially as of late since the world has gone into isolation at home (see ref. II at the end of the article).  Certainly, this time at home due to the coronavirus has prompted us to appreciate public space – our relationships in and with it, and our ability to move freely through it – that much stronger.  In an overall consensus, disciplines across the board agree that walking as a means of physical activity is equitable, sustainable, promotes physical health, supports mental health long term and short term, and even stimulates the local economy (Forsyth & Southworth, 2008; Weinstein Agrawal, Schlossberg, & Irvin, 2008; Montserrat & Rose, 2012; Alfonzo et. al, 2008). So, why then, has society still been so indoctrinated by the automobile and the associated street and building designs? We are waking up to the realisation that we need to take back our streets. Now more than ever, public space needs to function effectively to bolster our daily life and community health throughout the entire landscape of our cities. As such, every neighbourhood must function to allow inhabitants access to physical movement as a daily need – now without the concept of traversing across the city to specific key parks, but rather in a hyperlocal context outside one’s own front door. 

“Plinths are a vital part of the public realm in a city. The connection between the building and the street, the zone between private space and public space, is what is so-called a plinth. The plinth characterises and infl!uences, for a large part, the experience of the street.” - Rosa Danenberg & Hans Karssenberg, The City at Eye Level for Kids, 2019.

In the endeavour to successfully (re)design our cityscape for physical activity and urban health, multidisciplinary expert knowledge is outlined and expanded upon for practical application geared towards the city at eye level methodology for ground floor and plinths in the following five categories: walkability, wayfinding, human scale, inclusivity, and ownership/sense of belonging. This investigation to create lively and active plinths is concluded with a Dutch example, as well as key resources that you can tap into to bring activity to your streets. It is important to note that these categories often overlap and synergistically merge to create great quality places people want to keep coming back to – for health pursuits and ingrained into their daily life.

1. Walkability

First and foremost, before streets can support faster movement, such as skating, running, or cycling, they must first promote walkability. This term is commonly used throughout planning and design, but it has many meanings which include these five characteristics depicted in the adjacent image.


2. Wayfinding

Closely related to walkability – planners, developers, civil servants, and designers must inherently integrate wayfinding strategies (see ref. III). Pedestrian infrastructure supports this, such as clear and accurate signage, but importantly a successful strategy must also include branding or a consistent “look and feel” to the information for users to easily spot and process. Moreover, pedestrians commonly self-report the desire to know where and how far away hub intersections and exits are in order to access other areas (City of Toronto, 2015). 

To meet this need, streets should have orthogonal-like connections, visible ends in sight, gateway markers (such as neighbourhood logos), and signs pointing to the next major node or transit stop using symbolic markers to communicate across a variety of languages and cultures (Lynch, 1960 ; City of New York, 2013). Clear wayfinding assists physical activity towards easier and more intuitive route choice decision making for people of various backgrounds and abilities; this advantageously bestows feelings of agency, competence, and empowerment in the individual.

Additionally, aesthetics that integrate with the overall city-wide strategy, while also visualising its own unique identity, helps users remember specific locations to come back to and make a mental note that they can play or move there. For example, in Figure 3, the standardised Toronto Transit Commission information logo can be seen at the tram stop while there is also the unique dragon archway at the tram stop to help indicate to passengers where they are.

Figure 3: Public transit stop in Chinatown in downtown Toronto visually represents the area (City of Toronto).

3. Human scale

Human scale, also referred to as the human dimension by Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl, incorporates how human senses take in stimuli and thus informs designers of best practices to construct the built environment for positive experiences (1961 ; 2010). Most notably, sight and sound are objectively optimally perceived at varying levels based on the type of interaction being sought. For example, at approximately 25 meters distance, the human eye can pick nuanced details, but the sights only become “interesting” from less than 10 meters away (Gehl, 2010 ;  Karssenberg, Laven, Glaser, & van t’ Hoff, 2016). Moreover, we naturally and obviously gaze at “eye level” and therefore, design should follow this line of vision.  This means we need to retrofit poor quality street corridors that ignore visual cues beginning from the average human eye level and also design new ground floors to host nuanced eye-catching details that are comfortable for the human body to interact with. Such interventions include rich facade details, splitting the block up into various units with plinth doors or terraces at least at every 10 meters, green buffers such as trees and trellises to   create a veranda feeling, and setting back higher rise buildings from the front facade (Karssenberg et. al, 2016) . This supports a more pleasant human oriented experience. 

Specific to faster movement (see ref. III), citymakers should ensure that aesthetically pleasing wayfinding is combined with sensory stimulating ground floor design in order to ease quick bodily movements. For example, Kevin Lynch outlines practical ergonomic  designs for movement by the simple use of different textures on the pavement to represent different modes of transit, angle the connecting streets to nudge users in certain directions, and incorporate medians to prioritise the pedestrian (Lynch, 1960). As supported by Lynch’s work, among many others, taking advantage of infrastructure to protect and prioritise the pedestrian over the car, such as in the contextual example below depicting pedestrian routes along the Seine, will lead to more successful areas for physical activity. (Click on the images for full-size)

4. Inclusivity

As stated in the beginning of this article, physical activity is a human need – not only for the privileged, but for all. Physical activity is vitally needed for the aging population, for children, and for the less able bodied just as much as it is for the able bodied young adult.  The inclusivity in being able to use the streets and public spaces, despite financial situations, should guide our re(designs) to warmly invite all users regardless of gender, race, ability, sexuality, identity, or age. When working to incorporate genuine inclusivity for physical activity in our public spaces, we can tap into the Get to Know your Community  placemaking process step (an early step in a placemaking process in order to fully incorporate the users’ needs as much as possible for long-term vision). Ways to promote inclusivity, additional to co-creation with the stakeholders, include making sure the infrastructure is accessible for all types of bodies and abilities both physically, culturally, and mentally, and including a range of fitness programming for different needs and groups***. Superkilen Park in Copenhagen meets and perhaps exceeds such inclusivity measurements as it has been developed through community participation and co-creation, and it is constructed with inclusive hardware, such as flat, level, and connected surfaces throughout the space and to the surrounding streets. As well as, bridging gaps from sidewalks into the ground floor entrances,  safe pedestrian crossings, sidewalk barriers or buffers from traffic, and street furniture for resting. Notably, while this example meets inclusivity requirements, it is also a distinctly lively and fun place with a game-like atmosphere. The content and unique features in the park, decided with the local community, intentionally represent the varied cultural composition of the neighbourhood and thus welcome many identities and overstep the challenge to find a common spoken language in diverse neighbourhoods by public space professionals.

Finally, it is important to consider – Does the management team behind the space host a wide range of perspectives and identities? For long-term viability, it is important that even the care of the place (formal or informal) is led by a group of individuals that represent a wide range of the community and not solely mirroring an elementary identity or solely the views of the project team (see ref. V).

5. Ownership

Intimately fused with inclusivity, ensuring plinths, ground floors, and the streets at eye level imbue ownership and a sense of belonging award visiting users, as well as the workers and residents, an interactive atmosphere for familiar strangers and supports forming a relationship to the environment itself. When users see their views represented and their desires met in an environment, they feel heard and like they are meant to be there to use the place for their enjoyment and needs. Again, incorporating stakeholders from the start to co-create the environment to meet their needs is important. From this involvement and input, they are able to better incorporate the place into their own identity and as something to take care of. This comfort will motivate them to want to keep coming back to move, be active, and play.

Figure 8. Superkilen Park was intensely and intentionally co-created with the diverse neighborhood community and playful participatory design. Through this process, the users increase their sense of belonging and shared ownership over the place, (BIG, Topotek 1, Superflex, 2012). The use of color, texture, rhythm of line, and undulation of lines clearly demarcated areas for play, movement and further inspires an overall comprehension for interactions sidestepping the usual mobility conflicts that are found in vacant squares. Source: Unsplash, Daniele Salutari, 2020

Netherlands Example

In the Netherlands, the ‘Geveltuintje’ policy is a significant opportunity to bring the human scale, cosmopolitan qualities and a sense of ownership advantageously so that users and locals actively interact with the plinth and use the street for their own recreational movement. This policy stipulates that the first tile of a building may be removed and replaced with a garden or green planting. By integrating the ‘Geveltuintje’ policy to your plinth, you will seduce and entice more users to your street due to the high quality human scale considerations, and you can also provide this as collective activity for residents – and local stakeholders interested in gardening and plants – for their recreation and bonding. This intervention requires caring for the garden plots over time, in addition to using time and energy from the planting team. Therefore, this embodied attention from the caretakers boosts ownership over the garden patches. This can easily be a win-win if you have an engaged group of locals who want to use their physical activity for gardening and thus in turn inspires sporters and pedestrians to move through the route! 

Figure 9. Facade garden planting with the local community. Raymond Landegent leads the 1000 Facade Garden Initiative (1000 Geveltuinen) in Rotterdam. Credit: Geveltuinen, 2020.

*Portions of this article were translated into Dutch and included in 2020 to Alles Over Sport.

In-text references

I. The city at eye level is a programme including books, methodology, and workshops that instruct how to create a thriving, lively, and high quality public realm by focusing on the design, software, and organisation of plinths and the ground floor. The City at Eye Level (2016)

Image sources: The City at Eye Level (2016) – Lessons for Street Plinths. Plinths represent the ground floor interaction – where the street meets the building entrance. A buffer region from the public to the private. The plinths are within the public realm.

II. The novel coronavirus pandemic broke out in December of 2019 and by March of 2020 most of the world is on government issued new protocol to isolate physically and stop the spread of the virus. Now, after 1.5 years since the outbreak, worldwide, the virus has claimed over 4 million recorded deaths. We are still collectively working to overcome the virus: practicing social distancing, isolation, protective wear, remote working, a halt in global travel, pushing vaccination campaigns, etc.

III. Wayfinding is an intuitive way to understand spatially where you are in a given area, and which way you need to go to get to your goal destination.

III. As walking averages 5km/hr and running averages 9km/hr (Gehl, 2010).

IV. Schouwburgplein Square in the heart of Rotterdam creates diverse public programming –  for example, every weekend during the summer, yoga and bootcamp classes  are offered to the public for free.

V. Place management makes sure the place is taken care of and carries out long term governance after the project execution phase.