Cities need thoughtful urban design not because it’s pretty, but because it makes people feel as comfortable in public as they are in their private homes.

Every day, we spend our time in both public and private places. Generally our private space is our homes, on which we spend a lot of money to call our own. Our public lives are spent on streets, parks, playgrounds and shops, where we connect with other people and with nature. We pay a lot in taxes to ensure those public spaces improve our daily lives. Having both public and private places gives us the luxury of going out on the town, then going home, undressing and going to bed.

But while 2014 FBI data released this week showed San Diego was once again the safest big city in the country, it doesn’t always feel that way. That’s because subpar urban design can make safe streets feel isolating, uncomfortable or dangerous.

In 1972, urban designer Oscar Newman’s “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” argued that good design communicates a distinction between public and private spaces and typical people recognize those distinctions as a sense of where they belong.


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The physical design of private elements like doorways, walkways, front yards, windows, landscaping and signage enables people to develop that sense of what’s theirs.

People experience public sidewalks, streets and parks as an extension of private homes. A sense of enclosure makes outdoors feel like a safe indoor space. Cities achieve a sense of enclosure when buildings face the street and trees line the sidewalk to form an outdoor room. Seeing people in the seam between private buildings and public streets creates the vibrant dynamic that Realtors call “curb appeal.”

It works. People want to be in these places, because they feel comfortable and safe. They feel like they belong there.

Photo by Howard Blackson
Photo by Howard Blackson
Doors, windows, awnings, benches and street trees work together to make a streetscape feel like a place where people are welcome. This is Ray Street, in North Park.
Photo by Howard Blackson
Photo by Howard Blackson
San Diego offers opportunities for us to enjoy the outdoors in places that provide a clear understanding of where our private and our public lives meet. This is on Beech Street, in South Park.

Desolate streets do not feel this way. These are streets with long, blank building facades and shadeless, high-speed, one-way lanes, or sidewalks interrupted by multiple driveways, parking lots, vacant lots and buildings that don’t face the areas. These elements conspire to make pedestrians feel unwelcome. A street doesn’t feel comfortable when it makes us feel vulnerable, like walking through a stranger’s bedroom.

Photo by Howard Blackson
Photo by Howard Blackson
Large exterior electrical boxes send a message that the sidewalk isn’t yours and are particularly harrowing for disabled residents.
Photo by Howard Blackson
Photo by Howard Blackson
Buildings built for cars lack access points for people from the street, resulting in empty sidewalks and a confusing, undefined space. This is on 24th Street, in Golden Hill.

Without shopfronts, front doors, stoops, forecourts, common entries and windows, a sidewalk lacks the “eyes on the street” it needs to make it comfortable.

The most common streets with this problem downtown are those with parking garages, or office towers built in the 1960s with blank walls along the face of three of their four blocks, and a single front door and a parking garage entrance on the other. Or, on blocks dominated by empty surface parking lots. These public streets without people living, working, shopping, dining, learning, worshiping and drinking craft beer generate confusion and anxiety for walkers, and they feel unsafe.

Photo by Howard Blackson
Photo by Howard Blackson
The downtown library frontage is built for service deliveries, not people, because downtown lacks alleys. It makes pedestrians feel unwelcome and confused. This is downtown, in East Village.
Photo by Howard Blackson
Photo by Howard Blackson
This view of Kearny Mesa shows the need for complete streets. Well-designed stoops make for a pleasant experience on one side of the street, while the other side is a wall of parking garages. This is in Kearny Mesa’s Spectrum development.

And the perception of public space is different for men and women.

As UC Berkeley professor Louis Mozingo wrote in 1986, an unconscious result of suburban sprawl was a sexually divided city.

“In the walking city, the jumble of commercial, residential, and industrial uses, all proximate to each other, did not establish clear definitions of separate sexual realms,” she wrote. “But, the central business district, public and powerful, was a place by and for men.”

Pedestrians will naturally fill a street, thereby shaping and safeguarding the public space, when buildings face the street with doors, windows, shops and places for social interaction.

That’s why good design and planning – not increased security – creates a feeling of safety.

Photo by Howard Blackson
Photo by Howard Blackson
Even the street in front of the police station feels unsafe when it lacks doorways and benches and is bound by a long fence. This is on Broadway, in East Village.

Those eyes on the street come from the natural surveillance provided by building design and urban planning that encourages people to be part of the public realm.

San Diego’s development rules don’t focus on solving this problem, because they are focused on how a building will be used – whether it will be home to a store, or a manufacturing center or a place for someone to live – and how much traffic that use will generate.

Meanwhile, the more important question of how a building will be designed so that its entrance to the sidewalk and street on which it sits is buried in an obscure design guideline no one reads.

The city’s guidelines are concerned with the experience of a driver in a car on a road, not a person on foot on a sidewalk. And because the guidelines don’t care about the pedestrian experience, it’s unsurprising that we have pedestrian-unfriendly urban design.

The best examples of buildings built facing the street are in the new blocks in East Village and townhouses in North Park; these are generally the result of exceptional architecture rising above the rules they’re required to follow.

Photo by Howard Blackson
Photo by Howard Blackson
Stoops and common entries every few feet provide many chances to move from public to private space gracefully, and offer opportunities for eyes on the street. This is Columbia Street, in the Marina District.

Getting a building’s relationship to the street right is how a city provides pedestrians access to the public and private realms they desire, and creates the mixed-use, walkable urbanism our major planning policies claim to desire.

    This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Land Use, Must Reads

    Written by Howard Blackson

    Howard Blackson is urban design director at Michael Baker International, an engineering and consulting firm, and a former employee of San Diego's Civic Innovation Lab.

    17 comments
    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    All of the author's preferred examples emphasize "broken" areas. I dislike his preference, because it provides for far too many blind spots for potential predators. BTW, his Spectrum Center example is exceptionally stupid; the sidewalks are so narrow you can't even move down them in a wheelchair, and somebody will have to step into the street on passing another pedestrian. And, if the camera perspective had moved just ten feet left, all you would have seen is an example of "bad" garage access. Sorry Mr. Blackson, but pedestrian security is best when the environment is NOT "vibrant and dynamic."

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Ed Price I agree with your first point, because street lamps create pockets of darkness where potential predators can hide. And you're also right about the narrow sidewalks in Spectrum. Maybe it would have been better to leave out the sidewalks entirely and make the driveways shared space for all modes of travel including walking.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    "That’s why good design and planning – not increased security – creates a feeling of safety."  


    That is a highly debatable statement.  I feel safe because of my experiences of not getting mugged or having my car broken into.  Whether that is due to our police force or some other factor I don't know.  I seriously doubt that street design has anything to do with whether there is crime.  The only thing that matters to me is actual safety.  A false sense of safety doesn't help me one iota.  Maybe it is the police.  Maybe it is the people who live here.  Maybe it is a combination of both.  If I have to pay taxes for important government services, paying for security is my #1 priority.  When public safety has the proper funding, then we can talk about making people feel good about their surroundings.  Your pictures of the condo development is hilarious.   If I'm walking around in a high end gated community, I feel safer because of the security.  I could care less what directions the porches or garages face.  Again, I want my housing development HOA prioritizing security patrols, and gates first.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    @shawn fox 

    For a fee, I'm available to patrol your HOA.

    Signed,

    George Zimmerman

    Robet Lawson
    Robet Lawson

    But San Diego ISN'T safe. You won't be murdered, sure, but when your family is mourning your death does it matter that you were run down in a crosswalk by an inattentive motorist instead of shot in a dispute? A dense city with a few more murders but a hell of a lot fewer cars would actually be safer.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @Robet Lawson Sure it is.  Murders do occur.  They just aren't happening at the highest rate.  A crime can happen to anyone.  Every city has crime.  Isolated incidents do occur.  By the way, how about the story about the inattentive bicyclist who ran a red light?  Accidents aren't necessarily crimes.  One example of any particular crime doesn't prove anything.  The overall crime stats have far more meaning then a story about one isolated incident.

    Robet Lawson
    Robet Lawson

    @shawn fox @Robet Lawson I'm not arguing that San Diego is high-crime, it isn't. I'm saying it isn't safe because it's built in a manner which is dangerous for people walking, people on bikes, people in cars, and everyone else. More people are killed on the roads than are murdered.

    If a city had zero crime but ten people a day were dying due to meteorite impacts, that would not be called a "safe" city.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    If you want buildings to face the street, make property taxes proportional to street frontage. Then developers will naturally try to be a little smarter about minimizing their street frontage and putting their blank facades on the sides that nobody sees.

    Howard Blackson
    Howard Blackson subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann That... or have explicit development standards that require such in areas policies directing new development to build mixed-use, walkable places. Most SmartCodes, such as in Miami, Denver, Montgomery, Austin, Ventura, and Pasadena. 

    Mike
    Mike subscriber

    Agree with mostly everything except for one small thing. Good design and planning – AND increased security – creates a feeling of safety. We shouldn't overlook one in favor of the other.

    I would also like to add two more wishes. More street lights. Many of SD's streets can benefit from improved visibility at night for both comfort and security reasons. Wider side walks. Most side walks are too narrow to walk side-by-side with your companion comfortably. When passing another pedestrian, it's almost certain someone has to step off the curb or walk over grass. I think these two items will significantly enhance our sense of comfort, security, and walkability out on the streets. And they are both mostly within the city's control unlike private buildings.