A plinth is the ground floor facade of a building. It is a building’s most crucial part for the city at eye level. What do you as pedestrian experience when you look around? Are the buildings, their use and their design make an attractive urban environment where you feel at home? Do the plinths connect with pedestrian flows in the urban area? What are good functions for plinths? Which set of actions and partnerships are needed to transform dysfunctional plinths? The last few years, Stipo has worked on all kinds of plinth strategies: from the CityLounge programme in Rotterdam’s inner city to the transformation of Amsterdam’s ugliest into a welcoming street; from fashion in Arnhem’s Klarendal to better plinths in regeneration areas.

The Haarlemmerdijk in Amsterdam (PIC)

Why Plinths?

The city is not only a functional environment, but also an environment of experience. Function has been fairly dominant in the past few decades, due to the combination of a large post-war building production and the industrialisation of the construction process. However, now we experience, in western economies at least, the shift from ‘making the city’ to ‘being the city’. New construction and areas of growth will persist, but the reinvention of existing urban structures will become more dominant.

After the decades of functionalism, perhaps now a correction is necessary: more attention on the urban experience, or urban warmth as we call it from an urban psychological point of view. Besides, the knowledge economy, the ever larger interconnectivity on a global level, co-working, the increasing competition between shopping and residential areas, the growth of the urban-oriented people with a higher education, and the growing number of single and double households not only cause a massive revaluation of the city as a whole, but also make the experience of that city ever more important. The squares, parks and terraces are the places where knowledge workers exchange their ideas. Retail and culture are the places attracting more people, as are residential areas with an urban feel. It is all part of the larger movement of the urban renaissance, caused by the knowledge workers showing new interest in cities, those with mixed urban areas and great public spaces.

Antwerp (PIC)

Plinths and the Public Realm

Urbanites experience their cities in what we call the ‘public realm’. It has a broader meaning than just ‘public space’; it includes facades of buildings and everything that can be seen at eye level. Plinths are therefore a very important part of buildings: the ground floor, the city at eye level. A building may be ugly, but with a vibrant plinth, the experience can be positive. The other way around is possibly as well: a building can be very beautiful, but if the ground floor is a blind wall, the experience on the street level is hardly positive.

Plinths are crucial for the experience and attractiveness of the urban space, both in residential and commercial areas. Researches show that if the destination is safe, clean, relaxed and easily understood, and if visitors can wander around with their expectations met or exceeded, these visitors will remain three times longer and spend more money than in an unfriendly and confusing structure. Good plinths are in the interest of the urban economy, and not only because of consumers spending. A balanced labour market with enough people with a higher education demands a functional urban environment for living, shopping, and playing. The knowledge and experience economy requires spaces with character, a good atmosphere, a place to meet and to interact. The entire urban environment shapes this atmosphere, but plinths play a key role. The ground floor may be only 10% of a building, it determines 90% of the building’s contribution to the experience of the environment.

Mr Visserplein, inner city of Amsterdam. No doors. Good plinths are not self-evident. (PIC)

Good Plinths are Not Inherent

However logical this all may seem, we do not experience good plinths everywhere in cities. Why is that? In the projects we have worked on, we have found all kinds of reasons why the combination of interventions of government and market parties do not necessarily lead to good plinths.

To begin with many buildings of the past have been designed from a different design perspective and their plinths are simply not suitable for attractive public functions. At the same time there is the development of ‘drawing functions inside’, directing the attention more to the inside world rather than the urban environment: shopping malls, multifunctional complexes for leisure, care clusters and campuses often are bad examples of these. Monofunctional layouts and primary attention for car use worsen the situation, as do single-use office areas.

Plinths and the New Economy

When a plinth is successfully created, retail, cafes and restaurants often provide the highest profits. As a cause of this, attention is directed at commercial functions for most (re)development projects. But is this sustainable? The last ten years in The Netherlands saw a 50% increase in surface space dedicated to retail, while turnover in the sector remained the same. The coming years the retail sector expects an additional 30% to disappear as a consequence of internet shopping. These trends require a new perspective for programming plinths with different functions, such as properly designed housing on the ground floor. At the same time, we should stop clustering social functions such as primary schools in new multifunctional (and introvert) buildings, but to create spaces in flexible plinths that can change to new uses every decade or so.

Ypenburg, primary school in this child rich newly built area – in twenty years it can easily be used for other purposes. 

Many streets are under pressure; they have lost foot traffic and vacancy is increasing. Streets leading towards the city centres, streets around (public) transport junctions, streets in working areas and streets in residential areas are faced with vacancy or discrepancy (no suitable uses and/or a poor image). This trend can partly be seen as a natural urban life cycle, and partly by other influential causes, such as the focus of shifting inner cities, poor rental policies, or design failures.

As residential functions, co-working, shopping and leisure are more and more footloose, experience is becoming more and more important. New trends can improve the quality of plinths, such as authentic shopping, the need for new co-working cafes, temporary creative functions, and pop-up stores. In any case, a good plinth strategy will have to embrace a wide range of functions, including social functions and houses on the ground floor level.

Key Plinth Players

Besides these trends it is useful to look into some of the most important players’ positions: developers, owners, entrepreneurs, and renters. For project developers, the plinth is most of all part of their building, rather than aiming at creating a street. On top of that, financially, they are of secondary importance. When there is enough support for the offices or apartments on the higher floors, construction can be started. A plinth in use is then a bonus but not a breakpoint for the investment decision.

Office owners are satisfied when they can rent 90% of their buildings. For them, the plinth is often an entirely different, difficult and fragmented market. In most single-user office buildings the ground floor is merely an entry or security point. From the user’s viewpoint, as we can see in many office streets, these plinths contribute very little to the quality and attractiveness of the urban public realm.

Unfortunately, also many designers fail. Not all, but yet many architects are focussed more on designing buildings rather than creating good streets. And also in the design of the adjacent public realm all kinds of interests play a role, such as traffic, and experience and residential quality do not necessarily come first. Last but not least, private users who sometimes prefer (and are allowed) to close their shades towards the street.

As we can see, although we all realize their importance, good plinths are not in the least self-evident. The coming decades there will be more economic pressure on plinths, and local authorities and property owners will have to collaborate if they want good streets. To put it differently: attaining good plinths and a good urban experience realm requires an active government and an active market. A strategy is needed in which governments, developers, designers, owners, and renters each play their own parts. And because each neighbourhood and each street is different, they each require a different strategy.

Coolsingel Rotterdam, before and after the plinth strategy.

Criteria for Good Plinths

What then are good and bad plinths? In order to be able to value this, together with the City of Rotterdam’s Urban Planning and Economic Affairs Departments, we have developed a set of criteria. As it turned out it is necessary to research on three levels: building, street, and context.

Haarlem, simply good houses in the plinth. 

In close cooperation with the City of Rotterdam, and making use of the previous works ‘Close encounters with buildings’ (Centre for Public Space Research/Realdania Research, Institute for Planning, School of Architecture, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, 2004), ‘Towards a Fine City for People’ (Jan Gehl, 2004), and Great Streets (Alan Jacobs, 1995), and using our own experience in practice, Stipo has developed a three-layer set of criteria that should be part of each analysis and strategy for plinths: building, street, and context.
The building:

  • small scale units
  • variety of functions
  • transparent façades
  • special character of the architecture
  • richness in material
  • vertical orientation of the façade
  • a well functioning ‘hybrid zone’ (the transition from private to public)
  • appropriate signing
  • flexibility in height (4m)
  • flexibility in the land use plan (zoning)

The street:

  • pleasure to walk in
  • physical comfort (wind, sound, sun, shadow, maintenance)
  • definition (the height should at least be half the width)
  • variation in buildings
  • quality that binds the eye
  • good tree canopy
  • parking facilities
  • clear beginning and ending of the street
  • possibilities to sit
  • density

The context:

  • plinth-oriented consumer audience (pedestrian streams day and night, 5-20 passers-by per width meter per minute, economic and cultural capital in the surrounding neighbourhoods)
  • special urban programme or a special cluster of economic or cultural functions
  • good connections to the network of squares and parks
  • partners who take initiative
  • coherent urban design
  • a good position in the urban fabric and in the city’s walking and cycling routes

Each of these levels provides ‘buttons’ to push for a plinth strategy. The levels cannot be separate from each other, they interact; without enough people living in the area, for instance, or lack of purchasing power, a shop can have a fantastic plinth, but still will find it hard to survive. A single building may be well-designed (from a street perspective), but if the rest of the street has blind façades it will not function on its own. A street may be great, but if it is not connected to the main streams of pedestrians in the city centre, it will find it harder to function.

By analysing the plinths along these levels Stipo builds a joint vision, supported by the partners (owners, renters, government) and helps implement it, including temporary and new street concepts.

Plinth trends

In practice we not only see a new interest from both the users and the designers point of view, but we are at the same time also faced with massive changes on the programme side. Functions such as retail, residential, commercial, and social functions are faced with recent developments that provide new threats and new opportunities for plinths. The following are some of the most important that we encounter:

Seeing these trends, we find that good plinths cannot be made by retail only. According to some estimates, due to the combination of the oversupply created in the last ten years and the rise of internet shopping, half the current shops will disappear from our streets. Of course, new formulas will come up, but it is clear that we cannot solely rely on shops to create a better public realm. Therefore, in setting up plinth strategies, we also look at new economic functions such as co-working places, of course restaurants and cafes (but there is a limit there too), social functions such as elementary schools, and most of all living on the ground floor.

Rotterdam Plinth Strategy, new maps: “let’s meet at…” (PIC)

Rotterdam’s Plinth Strategy

Rotterdam is a good example of what a plinth strategy can mean for a city. Rotterdam is looking for contemporary ways to improve the residential qualities of its inner city with methods that suit the post-war reconstruction character. The city fully realizes that the image of the city as a whole largely depends on the image of the inner city.

After a pilot in three streets, the urban planning department, the inner city project team, the economic department and Stipo have analysed the situation in the city centre. This lead to a new analytic language in which pedestrian flows at different moments of the day, the increase of property values and mapping places of “let’s meet at…” are some of the analysed layers. Also, a function map was made, however not as usual for the entire building, but for the city at eye level only. It made it clear how the inner city ground floors are made of monofunctional islands of living, working, culture and shopping. By combining the layers of the analysis, now ten areas have been pinpointed where an intervention is needed, divided by short-, mid- and long-term approach.

The analysis can be found in the Analysis book for the Rotterdam Plinth Strategy (PDF, 4 Mb, in Dutch) and theAtlas for the Rotterdam Plinth Strategy. The Rotterdam Plinth Strategy (PDF, in Dutch) itself can also be downloaded after it was adopted by Rotterdam’s politicians.

International Comparison

One aspect of good, varied streets is to have compact concentrations of different functions in the plinth. For the Amsterdam Weesperstraat we compared which kind of units can be found at which distance. We compared some of the internationally renowned ‘Great Streets’ (Allan Jacobs): Regent Street in London, Champs-Elysées and Boulevard St. Michel in Paris, and Paseo de Gracia in Barcelona. In The Netherlands we analysed vibrant streets such as Amsterdam’s Haarlemmerdijk and Overtoom and Rotterdam’s De Meent, and less lively streets such as Rotterdam’s Weena, and Amsterdam’s Wibautstraat and Weesperstraat.

Our main conclusions are:

  • Great Streets have an average of a new unit every 10 meters with a house, a public function or an office (this means 8-10 units in every 100 meters)
  • Great Streets have a minimum of a new public function in every 15 meters (6-8 public functions every 100 meters)
  • Offices are not important for Great Streets, living is possible if not too dominant as a single function. Mostly public functions create Great Streets: shops, cafes, restaurants, education.

Weesperstraat in Amsterdam has an average of a public function 103 meters. Haarlemmerdijk, on the other side of the spectrum, has a public function every 8 meters. However, the Weesperstraat analysis showed that it is possible to adapt the existing buildings’ ground floors in such a way that the street would approach the average of the Great Streets. Combined with its good location in the city of Amsterdam, Weesperstraat could become a better street for pedestrians. This is a strategy we currently work on in close collaboration with the local authority and the property owners in the street, creating a vision and a coalition to transform this car-oriented office street into a metropolitan street that combines traffic and space for pedestrians.

Number of units on each side of the street per 100 meters, accumulative (green: commercial, red: residential, blue: public functions) (GRAPH)

Lately, Stipo has worked on Plinth Strategies in several projects:

  • Plinth pilots (in Dutch) in three streets in the inner city of Rotterdam (City of Rotterdam)
  • The City at Eye Level, Plinth Strategy for the entire city centre of Rotterdam (City of Rotterdam)
  • De nieuwe kracht van Klarendal (in Dutch), Fashion as catalyst for urban regeneratioin in Arnhem’s new fashion quarter Klarendal (City of Arnhem and National Building Supervisor)
  • Plinth Strategy for the Amsterdam Weesperstraat, conditions and transition strategy for a street better for pedestrians (City of Amsterdam)
  • Shopping centre Ypenburg in The Hague, plinth analysis with interdisciplinary team knowledge team of knowledge organisation (SEV/Public Realm)
  • Plinth interventions in flats in urban renewal areas in Zutphen and Deventer (housing provider Woonbedrijf Ieder1 and innovation network PLUK)

We are currently working on a street vision and a coalition of property owners on Weesperstraat in Amsterdam, and on a coalition for the plinth strategy of Eilandenboulevard in Amsterdam. Stipo is working on further knowledge exchange with many partners on the plinth strategy, among others an international Plinth Manual in English.