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May 21

[ARCHIVED] A Place for People

The original item was published from May 21, 2018 10:48 AM to May 21, 2018 10:50 AM

I teach a college course in how cities evolve over time and how people use them.  One portion of the course focuses specifically on how people use a particular portion of a city – a street, a plaza, a park.  This past week I had the great fortune to hear Jan Gehl, a pre-eminent architect from Denmark and author of the book I use in my course, speak on the topic of ensuring our cities physically function for the benefit of people.  If you have never had the opportunity to hear Gehl speak on this topic, I would urge you to do so, his insights are quite significant and I believe relevant in all our cities including Roanoke.  This opportunity caused me to think further about how we might be doing here in Roanoke in this regard.  As with any city, I am certain we have areas that succeed and areas that perhaps need a fair amount of attention to achieve the principles espoused.  

The Qualities of a Good Place

For this post, I thought it might be interesting to select a specific area of our city, evaluate it using some of the principles identified by Gehl and others and see what we can learn.  Let me first begin with what Gehl and most urban designers consider the place that best exhibits the qualities of a place catering to people – Piazza del Campo in Siena Tuscany Italy. 

Ricardo Andre Frantz Photograph of Piazza del CampoBy Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Designed and initially constructed in the 1300’s with elements added throughout the centuries, Piazza del Campo attracts people from all over the World with its beauty while continuing to serve the local population as a gathering place.  Gehl describes 12 qualities that he believes a space should include for people to enjoy the space.  The 12 qualities are grouped into three categories – protection, comfort and delight.  The qualities are:

  • Protection – feeling safe, feeling secure, protection against unpleasant sensory experiences
  • Comfort – opportunities to walk, to stand/stay, to sit, to see, to talk and listen, to play and exercise
  • Delight – buildings and spaces scaled for humans, opportunities to enjoy the positive aspects of climate, and positive sensory experiences

The Evaluation of a Space

So, with these 12 qualities and three categories in mind, let’s see how someplace like the City Market here in Roanoke is doing.  The market has been recognized as a "Great American Public Place" by the Lyndhurst Foundation.  The City Market is also a member of Planetizen's "Top 100 Public Spaces in the US and Canada."  Locally, the market receives many "Best of Roanoke" awards by readers of The Roanoker magazine, The Roanoke Times, City Magazine, and Virginia Living magazine, therefore it must be doing a lot, well. 

Roanoke City Market
Photo source: Visit Virginia's Blue Ridge

To feel and be protected, Gehl states that one must feel safe as a pedestrian and not fear traffic.  In this regard the City Market does quite well with the slowing of traffic on adjacent streets, the abundance of crosswalks, the requirement to yield to pedestrians, and the square itself being pedestrian oriented.

To feel secure, there must be many eyes on the street, the place must be lively and there should be activity day and night.  Again, the City Market does well here though it would benefit from more residents in proximity and there are times when it’s not a very active area.

To protect against unpleasant sensory experiences one must be protected from wind, heat, cold, pollution, noise, etc.  In this regard, the market benefits from the coverings over market stalls and the shelter of the surrounding buildings.  The area still suffers a bit from traffic noise and the associated pollution from adjacent traffic.

To promote comfort, a space should provide space to walk, be interesting to view, have places that invite you to linger, have comfortable places to sit, have low noise levels, and include invitations for one to play or exercise.  The City Market is one of the more interesting areas of our city and during the afternoon and on weekends is a great place to people watch.  There are places to walk and sit, though more flexible seating arrangements may be desirable. And while summer events such as DRI’s Movies in the Market promote gatherings for fun and entertainment, the space could benefit from some additional programming throughout the year.

For an area to delight its user the buildings and spaces should conform to a human scale, where one can see the bottom and top of buildings and look across the entire space.  Visitors should be able to enjoy the warmth of the sun and cool of the shade and should be able to admire quality design elements, colorful flowers and quality materials.  In this regard the City Market does quite well – a reason, I suspect, it has been recognized as a quality space and is enjoyed by so many.  The buildings surrounding the square are of interesting and high quality and the planters and their abundance of flowers are a joy to look at. 

Observe Our City

All in all, the City Market does quite well when held up to the qualities generally recognized as contributing to the vitality of a space.  Though reinvented over the decades, I suspect it is for many of these reasons the market has remained a vital part of our city since its creation in the 1800’s. 

With these qualities in mind, I ask that you look around as you move about our community.  How does Grandin Village, Williamson Road, Elmwood Park, or Washington Park hold up under such scrutiny?  What works and what doesn’t?  Do these places entice you or repel you?  What might we do to make them better or to ensure their long-term success?

- Bob Cowell