Designing Vibrant Urban Streets


Designing Vibrant Urban Streets – An Empirical Research Study on auto-oriented US region by Reid Ewing

Streets have been a major gathering area for people from all walks of life over the ages. In the modern world, streets are becoming important points of gathering for social, business, or personal reasons. So, it becomes necessary to understand the factors that affect street life in specific geographic locations, and design the “streetscape” in such a way so as to improve pedestrian activity and street vitality.

In this empirical research study, Reid Ewing, Keunhyun Park, and their research them identify and discuss the qualities that generate active street life. Contrary to the existing studies and literature on urban design, their study distinguishes itself byrelating pedestrian volumes to both conceptual urban design qualities and specific streetscape features, while controlling for environmental characteristics. This is the largest study to date to include both cities and suburban areas.

The field work was conducted in over 1,200 blocks throughout the Wasatch Front (Salt Lake City and suburban areas) in the whole year of 2015. The observational data on urban street design quality and pedestrian counts were collected by Wasatch Front Regional Council.

Reid Ewing and Keunhyun Park drew on environmental characterizations and variables which were computed for the quarter-mile buffer around each street segment. A quarter mile was selected as a standard walking distance beyond which walk frequency drops off rapidly. Transit variables like transit stop density, and demographic variables like household size were also included.

To analyse the empirical data, Reid Ewing and Keunhyun Park estimated three models of pedestrian counts. These models included comprehensive measures of built environments such as D variables (a traditional measure of built environment characteristics associated with travel behaviour, see Ewing & Cervero (2010)’s meta-analysis paper), urban design qualities, and streetscape features (e.g., historic buildings, street furniture, public arts).

At the neighborhood scale, Reid Ewing and Keunhyun Park found that the D variables–development density, accessibility to destinations, and distance to transit–are significantly associated with the pedestrian activity. The travel behaviours of people are related to these D-variables, which form the gross qualities of the urban environment. At the street scale, there were significant positive relationships between three urban design qualities (imageability, human scale, and complexity) and pedestrian counts, after controlling for neighborhood-scale variables. Also, it was observed that pedestrian counts are positively associated with seven of twenty streetscape features–historic buildings, outdoor dining, buildings with identifiers, less sky view, street furniture, active uses, and accent building colors.

It was observed that pedestrians are most prevalent in the downtown Salt Lake City area, but the suburban-only model also presents a consistent result that more place-making features and comfortable-scale streetscape would encourage people to choose the route. If we provide memorability and visual richness, people might walk more, even in the suburbs. These features are found in many European cities which have car-free streets throughout the city, with many people enjoying the outdoor social and cultural activities. Reid Ewing and Keunhyun Park conclude from the research that the street design might be better described by subtler urban design qualities than a gross measure of intersection density or job accessibility.

This study also provides a research recommendation for the urban planners to collect the data for a longer period at consistent times of day, on each street segment, or to use automated pedestrian counters. They recommend the use of new automated pedestrian counters such as passive infrared counters, micro radar sensors, or portable fisheye cameras for this data collection, in order to prevent losing time in between data collection.

Through this study, Reid Ewing and Keunhyun Park aim to create walkable places in typical auto-oriented, medium-sized cities. This result delivers a positive, empowering message – you don’t have to rebuild everything completely; focus on enhancing what you have. In this way, Reid Ewing and Keunhyun Park provide practical implications related to development of urban streets and walkable places for urban planners and designers.

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