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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.