ZOHO Rotterdam

The plinth may be only 10% of a building, but it determines 90% of the building’s contribution to the experience of the environment. What are the criteria for great streets and plinths?

The plinth is the ground floor of a building. It is a building’s most crucial part for the city at eye level. What do you as a pedestrian experience when you look around? Do 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?

What are good and bad plinths? In cooperation with the City of Rotterdam, and referring to previous research and articles such as ‘Close encounters with buildings’ [INTERNAL LINK TO CHAPTER] (Jan Gehl, 2006), ‘Towards a Fine City for People’ (Jan Gehl, 2004) and ‘Great Streets’ (Allan 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: context, street, and building.

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 look great, but if it is not connected to the main streams of pedestrians in the city centre, it will be difficult.

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

No street is the same. Streets and places have their own identities, according to the communities living there; their history in terms of buildings, heritage and social, cultural and economic function (the ‘soul’ of the place); and their position and function in the city. A residential street in a calm neighbourhood needs good plinths too, for the people living there deserve a good street as well of course, but still a different expectations and requirements than a busy shopping street in the centre of the city.

The set of criteria is therefore NOT meant as a ‘bible’ to which all streets should answer; rather as a set of guidelines to inspire your thinking about analyzing and improving the street.

To get your thinking on the unique position of the street going, you should always start with the context, then look at the street as a whole, and then look at the details of the buildings. Please have a look at the Eye Level Game [INTERNAL LINK] to learn more about how to use the criteria, and to find forms and tools to use yourself.

CONTEXT STREET / PLACE BUILDING(S)
1.           Grid position

2.           Socio-economic context

3.           Visual Quality

4.           Function Intensity

5.           Strategy

1.           User Comfort

2.           Program Variety

3.           Visual Quality

4.           Walkability

5.           Management

1.           Function Mix

2.           Hybrid Zone

3.           Visual Quality

4.           Vertical orientation

5.           High Flexibility

(Sources: The 90+ co-authors The City at Eye Level; Jan Gehl; Alan Jacobs; Stipo)

1) CONTEXT

Analysing the context is meant to understand the possibilities and restraints of what you can do in the street. You may desire a great shopping street, but if your place is a side street in a distant neighbourhood with communities oriented elsewhere for their daily needs, it won’t be realistic. Or, as the saying goes: “You can’t have a snowman unless it’s snowing”. So, on the one hand, the context provides characteristics that should be taken into consideration. On the other hand, the context can be changed too, but then only in the longer run, which would mean something for your long term strategy.

 

Grid Position

  •       the position in the urban fabric and in the city’s walking and cycling routes (centrality to the city’s or district’s most important pedestrian flows)
  •       pedestrian streams day and night, 5-20 passers-by per width meter per minute is ideal (with less the street feels boring; with more people bump into each other and get annoyed)
  •       fine grain of the street pattern (the finer the grain, the more choices pedestrians have to turn, the higher the quality for pedestrians; 200 m without a junction can already be critical for pedestrian flows)
  •       connections to squares and parks where pedestrians can relax

Socio-economic Context

  •       the socio-economic context in the surrounding neighbourhoods (economic capital may provide more purchasing power for the street; cultural capital provides people using the streets, parks and plazas; specific social characteristics of communities living around the place determine the specific uses and needs)

Visual Quality

  •       history and soul (the identity of the place)
  •       coherent and yet varied urban design (balance of diversity and coherence in architecture)
  •       clear and intuitive wayfinding (natural wayfinding, without the need of extensive signage; and at the same time, signs, pointers, maps and information points for pedestrians and cyclists should be in place too)

Function Intensity

  •       the presence of functions with a meaning for the whole of the city or even the region
  •       density of the entire area, increasing the amount of more potential users and functions nearby

Strategy

  •       the presence of a long term strategy (does the city and/or a coalition of owners / users have a perspective for the way the street / place should develop in the long term?)
  •       partners who take initiative; allow for the community to take ownership (are there people willing to invest in any way and make improvements on the short term)

 

2) STREET / PLACE

Analysing the street as a whole is the second step. We don’t mean for all streets to be vibrant streets necessarily; a city needs calmer residential streets too, for instance. Still, also these streets can have a more human scale or be more car oriented.

In residential streets, for instance, it can be important to have good living spaces in the ground floors, that connect with the street with great hybrid zones. These are the transition places from private to public and may contain plants and a bench to sit on, to give the street a human scale.

In business areas the blocks and buildings are mostly inevitably of a larger scale. The question then can be how to position the offices’ restaurants, the co-working spaces, how to put the buildings next to the street and solve parking elsewhere and how to make the plinths flexible enough for other uses in the future.

These are just two examples meant to inspire you to really think from the local context and come up with improvements that are unique to the situation at hand.

User Comfort

  •       pleasant to walk and cycle
  •       physical comfort (depending on the local climate, pedestrians may need protection from wind or sun, or prefer to be in the sun; ‘comfort’ is also about the overall quality of maintenance and cleanliness)
  •       possibilities to sit (variety; quality of benches and seats, but also ledges, planters, staircases along the water; there must be a balance between private and public seating)
  •       pleasant views, people watching

Program Variety

  •       a good street or place has at least 10 good places, each with 10 good reasons or activities to be there
  •       minimum 10 doorways per 100 m of façade (more reasons to visit shops, cafes, houses day and night)
  •       physical activity, play, interaction, entertainment (children of different ages, women, elderly people)
  •       temporary activity (markets, festivals, exhibitions; both for people with larger AND smaller wallets)
  •       both in summer and winter (how does the street function through the seasons).

Visual Quality

  •       quality that catches the eye (the richer the quality, the higher the score)
  •       ‘definition’ (the height of the buildings must be at least half the width of the street; too wide streets– mostly because of too many traffic lanes – usually do not feel comfortable)
  •       variation in buildings (variation, without the street becoming a big mess)
  •       good tree canopy (trees can create a street you feel at home in; watch how the canopy continues at junctions)
  •       clear beginning and ending of the street (this can be a significant building, monument, park or square)
  •       accentuate elements such as entrances, exits, paths and junctions (for natural wayfinding of pedestrians).

Walkability

  •       avoid car dominance and traffic noise (if traffic noise is dispersed and voices feel nearby, the balance is good; it is about the balance: streets without cars are not necessarily better for shops and eyes on the street at night)
  •       parking facilities, in balance (most streets need parking, balance with pedestrians and cyclists)
  •       room for walking, no obstacles (depending the amount of pedestrians using the street)
  •       quality surfaces (no holes in the pavement, no slippery surfaces, visual quality and warmth, sustainability)
  •       protection against traffic accidents (traffic calming, narrow car lanes, shared space, car drivers slowing down)
  •       protection against crime / violence (eyes on the street, human activity, people walking, variety of users, presence of elderly people and children)
  •       easy to cross at many points (the better you can cross, the better shops on both sides will interact and flourish)

Management

  •       good street/plinths/place management (taking care, for instance, that the street as a whole has the right portfolio mix, that vacant spaces are filled up actively, that shop and building owners take care of their façades  and hybrid zones, that events and markets are organised every once and a while, etcetera).

3) BUILDING(S)

The third and last step is the building level. The criteria below describe the unique situation, but will not be able to be obtained everywhere. Sometimes, it is already quite good for a street to have good plinths on the corners of the urban blocks. The criteria are NOT about historic or modernist architecture; throughout our work we found good and bad examples in both types of architecture, as long as the architects, the building owners and the building’s users keep their eye on the human scale and on connecting with the street rather than putting their backs to it.

Function Mix

  •       enough small scale units, 4-10 m width per unit (having smaller units are better)
  •       variety of functions (variety in shops, residential, work, cafes, restaurants, culture, etcetera)
  •       quality of cafes, shops, culture (functional quality in relation with the main users of the street)

Hybrid Zone

  •       a well-functioning ‘hybrid zone’ (the transition from private to public, the better you feel at home in the hybrid zone, the higher the score)
  •       ideal: between 0.5 and 2.0 m from the façade (lowest score for no hybrid zone, lower for deeper than 2 m too)
  •       façades with a ‘veranda feeling’ (the way the façade jumps in and out, and connects inside and outside)

Visual Quality

  •       special character of the architecture
  •       richness in material, architecture that embodies 5 km/h details
  •       appropriate signing on façades, no neon (loose letters on the façade for signing and advertisements are preferred over for instance plastic neon boxes)
  •       not too large glass surfaces as they mirror light and amplify noise (varied use of glass and other materials in the façade gives a high score)

Vertical Orientation

  •       vertical orientation of the façade (a façade can have a more vertical orientation, with the façade’s main lines running vertically and breaking the sight into pleasant units to walk by; or the façade can have a more horizontal orientation, with long lines that disappear into the horizon, creating a more boring sight)

High Flexibility

  •       flexibility in height (plinth space should be at least 4m high so it can, through the decades and centuries accommodate shops, cafes, restaurants, work spaces and houses, etcetera)
  •       flexibility in the land use plan (zoning plan allows for function changes, without causing hindrance due to noise or pollution)

On the Eye Level Game page [INTERNAL LINK], you will find the tools and forms to use these criteria and analyze your own street, and make suggestions for improvements.
Do you feel that something is missing? The list is an evolving dynamic list, and we learn new insights each time, so if you have something to add or change, please contact us.