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A Formula For Place: Character and Comfort

Read about the formulas for measuring walkability and building engagement.


Placemaking helps people feel a sense of ownership and pride in public spaces, which can lead to stronger social cohesion and sense of local identity. But without metrics, placemaking can be dismissed as too abstract or theoretical. This is the third post in a short series about quantifying the qualities of a great place so local agencies can track their progress.



Quantifying big ideas

Character and comfort measures the experience of the public realm at the smallest scale. Its formula is the sum of the pedestrian zone, streetscape, and active ground floor uses.


Pedestrian Zone

The width of linear space allocated to pedestrians is a key metric in placemaking. We’ve all been on sidewalks that are designed to meet minimum standards, and it’s difficult to walk side-by-side with a friend. Things get even trickier when another person is walking towards you in a narrow pedestrian zone.



People feel more comfortable walking in an appropriately sized pedestrian zone. To calculate a score for this, measure sidewalk widths and apply the following criteria on each block face:

  • Low quality = 0-5 feet wide

  • Moderate quality = 6-10 feet wide

  • High quality = 11-15 feet wide

  • Very high quality = over 15 feet wide


Streetscape

Furnishings, shade, and lighting are key features to include in a placemaking formula. The presence of street trees, pedestrian scaled lighting, and furnishings like benches improve the pedestrian experience.



Shade score

Maricopa County, AZ published research that informed the shade score criteria below. Here’s a portion of their executive summary:

“High temperatures and abundant sunshine place significant demands on the body’s cooling mechanisms… Heat exposure while walking in the warm season can be a physically uncomfortable experience for many… Providing thermally comfortable routes can make walking and biking more viable and appealing to individuals who are vehicle-reliant as well as those who depend on active transportation modes.”


Regardless of how close a city is to the equator, shade is an important ingredient when designing public space. Determine the square footage of shade from trees and awnings in the pedestrian zone, and apply the following criteria:

  • Low quality = 0-20% shade

  • Moderate quality = 21-30% shade

  • High quality = 31-60% shade

  • Very high quality = over 60% shade

Furnishings score

Simply track whether or not benches, chairs, trash cans, bus shelters, fountains, sculptures (and other forms of public art), etc. are present.


Lighting score

Add up the number of streetlights per 300 feet on each block.

  • Low coverage = 0-3 streetlights

  • Moderate coverage = 4-8 streetlights

  • High coverage = 9-13 streetlights

  • Very high coverage = over 13 streetlights


Active Ground Floor Use

Street level activity is one of the oldest signs of vibrancy along a main street. Jane Jacobs famously talked about the “sidewalk ballet,” her term for the natural and somewhat chaotic movement of people in and around public space. The National Institute of Health published research on the influence of active buildings. Active uses on a block face bring about a more interesting and better pedestrian experience.



The primary land use tax output (PLUTO) is a spatial database of tax parcels that includes a list of active uses that were used to develop the criteria listed below. These include parks, stores, restaurants, residential buildings, hospitals, and schools.


First, determine the activity at each parcel of a block:

  • Low activity = vacant, transportation, warehouse, or similar

  • Moderate activity = single-family residential, civic or religious institution, or similar

  • High activity = multi-family residential, parks, commercial, restaurant, entertainment, or similar


Second, apply the following scoring criteria per 300 feet:

  • Low activity = 0-4 active uses

  • Minimal activity = 5-8 active uses

  • Moderate activity = 9-12 active uses

  • High activity = over 12 active uses


Character and Comfort

Once you’ve calculated pedestrian zone, streetscape, and active ground floor use, add the values together for a total score of the character and comfort experience. The pedestrian experience is one of the most frequently overlooked aspects of placemaking because it’s rarely measured. Now you have a way to quantify the street level activity in your community.



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