Activating the Edges: How to Create Lively, Active Streets

By
Amanda Loper, AIA, Daniel Simons, FAIA, and David Baker, FAIA
A mixed-use building corner with an illustration of the property line in yellow, showing the building pulled back from the property line to increase space for public active use. #
Image Credit
Bruce Damonte

A famous skyline can evoke rich associations and unleash the imagination, but the real experience of a city is in its streets.

Early humans evolved to see the first 20 feet in front, above, and around them so they could identify potential threats in the landscape. In our modern urban environment, this is still how we experience buildings and places. While aerial views and Google Earth imagery are useful for reference, the main experience of the outside of a building is what we pass by on the street, up to about the second or third story. The height of a building doesn’t necessarily matter if the street experience is rich and accessible. 

Activating the edges means preventing dormant spots where dynamic uses should prevail. Prioritize interactive uses—community spaces, courtyards, entries, or seating—in the prime space where the building meets the street edge, to ensure a lively interaction between the building and public realm. 

When placing required elements like driveways, service doors, and transformers, minimize interruptions to civic life. For example, in a big building, place the driveway away from the primary pedestrian street. Tuck the garage out of view and wrap it with homes or community spaces, avoiding blank zones or places that don’t prioritize people. Engaging edges make for a more interesting, interactive, and safe streetscape surrounding your property. 

Great ground floors

Walkable urbanism happens where the sidewalk and the building touch and interact. We measure a building’s success by how vibrant and contributory the ground floor. is to the neighborhood. If you focus on the first 20 vertical feet of your building, you can establish a strong sense of place and create a wonderful resource. 

The height of the ground floor has a big impact on the experience of the building from both the sidewalk and inside. Take a full 20 feet for your ground floor if you can. This allows the most flexible street level—one that lends itself to a rich mix of uses and can accommodate interesting double-height spaces. If a 20-foot floor-to-floor height is not available, get as much as you can. If possible, don’t drop below 12 feet, which can still support vibrant retail or a raised residential unit. 

Retail flexibility

Because buildings have a long lifespan, it’s important to make a ground floor that is not only a contemporary amenity, but also one that can be adapted over time. For example, a new building in a transitioning neighborhood may not be able to support traditional retail when it first opens. Communities’ needs and fortunes can change drastically. Build a flexible ground floor with small spaces that can stand on their own—great for independent local businesses—and eventually be joined together to create larger spaces for more-established tenants.

Space for people

Whatever the height of the ground floor, look for opportunities to set the building back from the street or to widen the sidewalk—or both, if possible. This extra space enlarges the public realm, making it more inviting and hospitable to passersby. 

Ample space in this zone gives you a chance to provide places for cafe seating, bike parking, and other elements that connect the building and its occupants to the neighborhood. On a retail frontage, this active space is where tenants can express themselves and draw people in. Provide room for shops and restaurants to personalize with seating, signage, and other displays. Over time, this customizable zone between the building edge and the public space will evolve, and a varied and organic streetfront will emerge.

Residential stoops

Lining a building edge with residential uses adds liveliness at a small scale with a big payoff. Stoops both connect and protect, linking living spaces to the larger world while softening the transition between each home and the public realm.

A riff on porch culture, stoops create opportunities for brief, incidental social encounters. In doing so, they extend residents’ sense of ownership and care out toward the surrounding neighborhood.

A defining quality of stoops is a clear perimeter, which can be created with a height differential, railing, or landscaped boundary. Stoops can open to sidewalks, midblock passages, or courtyards, and can be combined with patios and balconies to offer a variety of semi-private outdoor spaces.

Visual activations

Not every site is ripe for a bustling retail row, and building edges often need to accommodate private uses. Without overtly interactive uses, an edge can still offer visual engagement and interest, contributing to the streetscape through color and pattern, interior or exterior illumination, views into a building or courtyard, and street plantings. Even with challenging edges, there is always something a building can offer rather than turning its back to the people outside.

The Q Zone: The Makings of a Great Ground Floor 

One of our best tools to create a successful ground floor is what we call the Q Zone; here, “Q” stands for quirky. This is the place—a liminal space between the public realm, property line, and building edge—for users to make their marks. If you “maximize” your site by building right up to the property line and don’t reserve some extra height for your ground floor, there’s no Q Zone, no wiggle room for the unexpected to invigorate and differentiate a street, making it a place where people want to spend time and energy. The Q Zone has an impact above the ground level, too. Variation in the volume at the ground floor can allow the building above to “push” and “pull” in places, to make terraces, balconies, mezzanines, and townhome stoops possible.

Use All Dimensions to Create a Q Zone

Height. Ground-floor heights are crucial. Taller ground floors can accommodate a wider range of uses and add more interest and flexibility to your unit types. At a minimum, you need 12 feet for vibrant retail or a residential unit with a stoop that connects to the sidewalk. With 17 feet, you can incorporate a mezzanine, and with 20 feet you could include two-story townhomes, offices, or an airy, loft-like creative space. In large-scale buildings, it may be appropriate to provide a range of heights along the ground floor to suit a variety of uses, accommodate grade change, and add dynamism. 

Depth. It’s important to make space for people along the building edge. Some sites may include a generous sidewalk, but on others, you might need to create one yourself. Set the building back, ceding some of your site to the public realm, to enable more defined entryways, public seating, residential stoops, retail merchandising, and street plantings. Preserving this space instead of  building all the way to the edge of your site elevates the overall experience along the street and establishes the building as an appealing place and an asset to the area. The whole building doesn’t need to be set back for this to work. With a taller floor-to-floor height, setting back the ground floor creates a covered active edge and retains usable space on the upper floors.

Width. Design a ground floor so it can be divided into smaller, more affordable spaces or joined to create larger, more prominent spaces. To achieve this, we often leverage the structural column grid to create bays along the storefront. Within the bays, we leave space for the tenant to add well-lit signage, seating, or displays, and include wood storefronts that can be freshly painted when a new business arrives.

This essay is an excerpt from 9 Ways to Make Housing for People, by David Baker Architects, available from ORO Editions and major booksellers.

Published by ORO Editions, December 2022. Graphic design by Mende Design