In urban settings the root value of all property is its attractiveness to human use, which I call “people-productivity“. This is different from resource-productivity, which is the basis for rural land values. There are two major things that attract people in a macro level: natural conditions (good weather, beautiful scenery, etc) and other people (the people themselves and the economic opportunity created by large populations). By far the more important of the two is the other people.
At a micro level there are two major components to every property: its structure (the buildings and private space) and its interface (the connection to the outside world). Property values are also heavily impacted by conduits, which are essentially the paths of infrastructure that cannot be used by humans directly (ie a freeway which you must be in a car to use, or communications infrastructure which you use with communications devices).
Structures, interfaces and conduits can either be attractant or repellent. If an attribute of a property is attractant, it draws people in, which increases the value of the property. If an attribute of a property is repellent, it reduces the appeal to people, which decreases the value of the property.
Structures, interfaces, and conduits have varying levels of radiance. Radiance refers to the size of the area in which surrounding property values are affected. Structures are not very radiant, by themselves they do not usually have a strong impact on nearby properties, and what impact they do have doesn’t spread far. Interfaces tend to be highly radiant, they impact a wide area of surrounding properties. The effect of this is the creation or removal of residual value in neighboring properties.
Conduits are more complicated, as they vary in radiance. Conduits can often have a noxious element, like the smell associated with a sewer. These can usually be mitigated. The intent of conduits is to deliver vitality, either in the form of people (customers, guests etc.) or some kind of service (water, sewer, communications) that make life better in that spot. So, a conduit will be attractant if it is more vital than noxious, or repellent if not. The radiance of a conduit will typically be the magnitude of its attractance or repellence.
So far this week I’ve laid out the basis of my theory that explains the roots of property value, and the various components that impact property values on a local level. For those who didn’t have a chance to read the previous two posts, or would like a handy terminology reference, check out the recap on the left.
So, if we’ve got a property and we want to make it more valuable, the best thing we can do is improve its INTERFACE, which is the way in which it connects to the rest of the world. At first, this may seem like an arbitrary task. After all, who can decide what is a good connection and what’s a bad one, isn’t that subjective?
It turns out, the things that attract people aren’t that subjective at all. Thanks to some truly brilliant work done by William Whyte, in a book and video called “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” we have a foundation for understanding what kinds of things attract people to use a place. Whyte’s work has been successfully tested and applied in all kinds of places around the world thanks to the work of a group called “The Project for Public Spaces.” You’ve probably seen some of their handiwork up close and personal, too. They were heavily invovled in the design of Discovery Green.
In my thesis I fused together some of Whyte’s work with some of Jane Jacobs’ ideas in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as well as a lot of snippets of other more recent research, and came up with a list of key ingredients to an attractant interface. (As a side note, I discovered some really interesting stuff about the differences between male and female brains while reading about the neuroscience of vision… but we’ll stick to urbanism today.)
There’s an important concept to understand before thinking of this list. The first is William Whyte’s conclusion, “the main thing that attracts people is other people.” In other words, to be sure you attract people, your goal should be to have a critical mass of people in the first place. There are two ways to create this. First, you benefit from having people pass-through a space on their way to and from wherever they’re going. Supplement that incidental traffic you need a reason for people to go there, or what Jacobs calls demand goods. Just like the concept in economics, a demand good is something that people go out of their way for.
So, with those concepts in mind, here are the most important components for attracting people. The first two are at a neighborhood level, and the rest are design elements for a good interface.
In a mixed use environment you have lots of incidental traffic: people coming and going. The specific uses don’t matter so much – what matters is the timing. You want people coming and going all day, therefore contributing critical mass to a place. A mix of residences, workplaces, and shops is the easiest mix to get steady traffic all day, but there are other mixes that can work as well. These don’t need to be vertically mixed, and they don’t all have to be in a single property. The key is for the uses to be connected with a good interface.
2. Small Blocks
Small blocks create more opportunity for people to take short, direct paths to where they’re going. This means people are more likely to walk, and therefore more likely to be seen as incidental traffic, which helps create critical mass. Small blocks also create more premium property types, such as corners and vistas.
3. Sitting Space
Sitting space is a key component for a good interface. In denser areas this is a place to rest, watch the crowd, or socialize. Even in low density places this is a valuable place for socialization, think of the traditional ‘front porch’. Sitting places should be comfortable, but they don’t need to be benches. In fact, ledges and stoops that are the right height often work better than benches. The best type of sitting space, however, is a moveable chair. People love to move their chairs around to sit in just the right spot.
4. Sun / Shade
Some people like to sit in the sun, others don’t. This is mainly for personal comfort, so the weather also has a lot to do with how important sun and shade are. In general, it helps to have a mix of sunny places and shaded places, so that a place is effective year round. When sunlight it focused in central open spaces, this also helps call attention to those places and make them stand out.
5. Motion / Color / Texture
People’s eyes are all different. In general, men have more rods than cones in their eyes, and women the opposite. This means men usually see color less vibrantly, but perceive motion more acutely, and can see better in low light, as compared to most women. As a designer you can take advantage of this by placing bright, colorful things, like flowers, beside things that move, like fountains – this way you catch everyone’s eye. You can also add texture to surfaces (walls and pavement), which will reflect the light in a more interesting way than a smooth surface. Contrasting smooth and textured surfaces also tend to be visually pleasing as people pass by.
Have you ever been in a place that just seemed too quiet? If a place feels like the inside of a library, people will tend to be shy about breaking the silence. Conversely, the sudden loud noises of freight trucks passing by can kill a conversation, and nobody likes that. The best balance is to find a place with low intermittent noise (sudden loud sounds) and a little bit of white noise (like the sound of a fountain). This way people can have a nice conversation, but without needing to yell, and without feeling like every passer-by is eavesdropping. Also, a little light music echoing down the street can draw a lot of interest, but it’s best if it’s live.
There’s nothing quite like a good vendor to draw people out into a space. Food is a great demand good. This is one of the key observations I had in visiting the Discovery Green Marketplace last weekend, the market really livens up the park. Plus, market operators / vendors can serve another very useful function, which I’ll talk about in a bit.
8. Niche Facilities
This is something Jane Jacobs talks a lot about in the context of urban parks. It’s important to have some special facilities in a park, as these will draw a regular crowd. Things like well-kept soccer fields or tennis courts will attract people from surprising distances. These are demand goods. A good example of this in Houston is Cherryhurst Park. The park has a tennis court and a playground, and I’ve almost never seen it empty. The splash pad and remote-control boats at Discovery Green are also great examples. For individual property owners, this one is often impractical, but for a good park or plaza this is almost a prerequisite.
9. Layers / Vistas
Lastly, it’s always important to think of ways to create views into any space that’s “off-to-the-side.” Nobody is very curious about what lies behind a giant blank wall, but most people will peek through the bars of a gate, or glance in a window. Whether it’s a retail store on a sidewalk or a park, creating visual layers that leave controlled views into a space are great ways to draw interest. One example of a park that does a poor job of this is Tranquility Park near City Hall in Downtown. There’s no visibility into the park from Smith Street, and limited visibility from other directions. This is partly because the park is the roof of a parking garage, but it’s partly because the designers deliberately tried to ‘wall off’ the street to reduce the noise level inside the park. This mainly results in the park being underutilized.
The “Wrong” Crowd
So, we’ve just discussed all the ways that you can attract people to a place. But what happens when what William Whyte calls ‘undesirables’ show up? First, if you constantly attract large numbers of people, the few ‘undesirables’ will be so outnumbered as to be nearly invisible, and won’t create a safety or perception problem. If you don’t quite have that critical mass, one of the best things you can do is to have what Whyte calls ‘mayors’ on the street. The best ‘mayors’ are people like vendors, who are highly visible, regular presences in an area. People like valets are also a good example. These people help reduce the need for police by serving as eyes on the street, and because they regularly inhabit the same place they’ll be quick to spot trouble.
Again, these ideas apply to interfaces. This means that the place where they can all come together the best are public parks or plazas. When the city builds a park they should use this as a checklist and do their best to provide most or all of these items.
But clearly you can’t fit much of this stuff in the interface controlled by a single property-owner. Even large properties like office buildings and apartments are rarely large or affluent enough to justify a significant plaza or park space on their property. The cool thing is, each of these ideas is highly radiant. If you own a store, look at the other stores nearby and see what they’re contributing. Look at the whole street, the whole neighborhood even, and try to find what’s missing. If you add what’s missing you create exceptional value for yourself, as well as contributing residual value to the surrounding community.
These things often come together when a series of property owners in a neighborhood each contribute just one or two small pieces, but they happen within sufficient proximity to create a powerful attractant.
There are more attractants than just what’s on this list. The retail industry has spent great time and energy finding ways to create structural attractants, such as unique retailers or ‘category-killer’ big box stores. They build malls to create an artificial interface to help small retailers and big anchors share residual value. Disney World might be the world’s largest collection of structural attractants and artificial interfaces, and of course they draw huge crowds and make a lot of money.
But artificial things are hard to make, and they get stale easily. Six Flags has struggled to stay profitable, even though people love their parks. The opportunity to create rich, genuine environments that powerfully draw people is timeless. Look at some of the most loved places in Paris or Rome, and you can see the natural, organic way that people create this valuable synergy all on their own. The trick is not to make vibrant places illegal by requiring a built environment that’s all conduit and no interface.
Unfortunately, that’s the standard operating procedure right now in Houston and most of the rest of the US. But we can change this! We can do better, and in so doing we can create new economic growth and vitality for our region and our nation. Next week I’ll be looking at how we can apply some of these ideas to Houston generally, and one specific example of how we can use it to make the city’s future brighter.