The Figuration of Place & the Urban Room

Maple Tree Square

The Figuration of Place & the Urban Room

Inside the urban room we stand in a space in the city where we can see the buildings all around. It is a place where the linear tyranny of the street is finally broken, and where the distance separating the buildings can be set to resonate with the mechanisms of human sense perception. When the ratio of the building height, to the distance between the buildings can be described by small, whole-numbers, then a powerful and lasting impression is created in our memory that we term the urban room.

In the long streets of cities platted with regular orthogonal grids one place can look very much like another. In sharp contradistinction, the experience of the urban room is something altogether different.

Each urban room takes on characteristics unique to its particular place, and our memories easily associate that place with the mental image created by the urban room. These memory images quickly combine into mental maps helping us find our way in the city. This mental imaging of place experience we term the figuration of place.

Urban rooms figurate urban space. They act as markers and makers of place greatly assisting our innate way-finding abilities.  For example, a set of squares separated by short distances orchestrates one of the most meaningful experiences in urbanism. As we move from one urban room to the next a series of memories, a linked sequence of mental images, builds in our psyche. That series is easy to recall, play back, and rearrange to construct mental maps of the places we have experienced. A habitual route traveled on foot soon turns into a kind of urban spine—a physical corridor from where we can link other destinations in an evolving, mental construct of place.

Urban rooms also enhance our ability to find our way within the quartier. Even on side streets we know where we are because we remember where we left the urban room behind. For all of these reasons, an urban room should form the ‘heart’ of each quartier (see The Donut Principle).

Oppenheimer Square

The urban room as ‘heart’ of the quartier supports social functioning. As long as the square or the urban room is surrounded by local destinations—cafés, restaurants, places to sit or stroll, convenience shops, transportation stops, and the like—people will gravitate there naturally whether or not they have something planned. People living within easy walking distance of the central square will likely bump into neighbours without having to call, e-mail, or text.

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Chinatown Square

The possibility for chance encounters enhances the quality, and multiplies the number of opportunities for spontaneous social mixing in the quartier. If the urban room is near the path from transit to home, for example, then many will choose to cut through the space as a daily ritual. This phenomenon presents with higher pedestrian counts in the urban room than on any of the connecting streets.

Thorton Park

The transit stop for the quartier should locate in close proximity to the urban room, and vice versa. However, we should avoid mixing transit and pedestrian oriented places since transit typically dominates, and takes over. Thus, the transit stop should be just around the corner, or perhaps on the arterial. The urban room can be just a shout away. Nevertheless, transit stop, urban room, and quartier can share the same name, helping to build the narrative of place.

 © Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, January 2012.
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