The City at Eye Level: Lessons for Street Plinths

Image of The City at Eye Level: Lessons for Street Plinths
Release Date: 
October 7, 2013
Eburon Publishers, Delft
Reviewed by: 

“. . . an extraordinarily valuable compendium of insight and perspective . . .”

What makes a good place? While there are many answers, a necessary condition is good place experience. Simply stated, a good place looks good and feels good.

As the editors of The City at Eye Level state, “While walking, you consciously and subconsciously examine the immediate eye-level surroundings and absorb any details. You look at the shop-written notes, smell coffee from the café or freshly baked bread and hear people talking and laughing. If the feelings from a street are good ones, you remember those places and want to return.”

A good place experience must involve human scale. As the editors write, “As a pedestrian in the city, you ought to feel comfortable, safe and captivated by the details of what your eyes see.” What your eyes see is a plinth, the design term for the ground floor of a building.

According to Hans Karssenberg and Jeroen Laven the plinth “is a building’s most crucial part for the city at eye level.” Especially important is the distinction between the physically inhabited, what is public space, and the public realm, which is both inhabited and also seen.

This public realm “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 possible as well: a building can be very beautiful, but if the ground floor is a blind wall, the experience at the street level is hardly positive.”

Just how important is this public realm of the city at eye level? “Research shows that if a 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 . . . the ground floor may be only 10% of a building, but it determines 90% of the building’s contribution to the experience of the environment.”

Collecting the insights and wisdom of 25 contributors, The City at Eye Level explores the subject from multiple perspectives—planned and organic city, public realism and the user, property and development, ownership and management, revitalizing and renewal—supplemented by case studies concerning area development, city streets, and regeneration, and concluding with “75 lessons for good plinths.”

The evocative, engaging, and entertaining perspectives employed to explore plinths is evidenced by such titles as “The Soul Purpose of Managing Empty Real Estate,” and “A Plea for Flemish Parking.”

Though reflecting the Rotterdam and Amsterdam base of the editors and many of the contributors, included are eye level interpretations of plinths in Antwerp, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, San Francisco and Toronto.

Four of the book’s five editors have some connection to Stipo—acronym for Strategy, Innovation, Processed Development, and Open-Source—started nearly two decades ago at the University of Amsterdam—a multi-disciplinary consultancy addressing urban strategy and city development.

This volume makes the important contribution of championing place experience alongside function, reflecting the shift in emphasis “from making the city” to “being the city.” In this spirit, The City at Eye Level celebrates the 21st century expression of the place thinking of such legendary proponents of human-scale place experiences including Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch and Gordon Cohen.

While there is growing contemporary awareness of the importance of cities, less recognized is the imperative as a consequence of more urbanization to “make the experience of that city ever more important,” consistent with “the larger movement of the urban renaissance caused by new interest in cities with mixed urban areas and great public spaces.”

Streets that are more appealing have buildings of several stories in height, as contrasted to those that soar as skyscrapers. Good plinths are rich in sensory experience with structures reflecting a diversity of functions. The rhythm of the facades emphasizes the vertical rather than the horizontal. Windows promote rather than frustrate transparency.

One of the intriguing contemporary themes explored in The City at Eye Level is the role of visual messages in facilitating movement in and through urban places. The challenge of finding through our surroundings is facilitated by maps and signage: the former to make sense of the larger place context and the latter to identify a particular place.

Describing signage as “an even more abstracted form” of way finding through urban environments,” Samar Hẻchaimẻ writes, “Through signage, we expect to abstract the city and all of its plinths into a predetermined set of destinations or landmarks, which we assume are the main destinations any one person would need to go to in this particular city.”

As this explanation suggests, the process can be quite complex. Further, with even more mobility, people are more likely to confront new places. The mental maps that might have sufficed in a prior place may be totally inadequate for a new place.

In particular, the problem is that “designers and developers seem to think that buildings have to take on more and more unusual shapes in order to be a billboard and landmark that stands out from the crowd of buildings. Yet since we are at ground level, we do not perceive the entire building: that does not fit within our cone of vision or we avoid looking at it if it is highly illuminated.”

Finding your way can be especially daunting in newer cities, such as Shanghai, where buildings can be experienced as vertical arcade games of cascading light shows, shifting colors, pulsating music sound tracks, and auditory articulations of promotional messages. The cumulative, cacophonous clutter can crowd out clarity.

The City at Eye Level is an extraordinarily valuable compendium of insight and perspective into what makes an appealing place. Those choosing a place to live, to locate a business, or for a social occasion, can benefit immensely from the information and guidance contained in this most important volume.