Urban Room

Maple Tree Square

The Figuration of Place & the Urban Room

Inside the urban room we stand in the city inside a space where we can see and experience all around us the faces of fronting buildings set at a distance coded to resonate with human sense perception. When the ratio of the height of the buildings and the distance that separates them is within whole-number ratios, a powerful and lasting impression is created in our psyche that we term the urban room. Many writers have described the feeling we experience standing in an urban room  as ‘The Sense of Place’.

In the long streets of regularly platted grid plans one place looks very much like any other. Urban rooms function differently. Simply by observing a simple set of design principles, each urban room can take on the characteristics unique to its particular place. When these design guidelines are observed, our perceptual mechanism takes over and forms a memory image of that place. The image that remains in our consciousness is rich with place-associations, starting us on the process of building a mental map of the city. This internal process of associating a mental image with an urban space is what we term the figuration of place.

Oppenheimer Square

Urban rooms figurate the city. They function as markers and makers of place greatly assisting our innate wayfinding 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. We soon discover that the series is easy to recall, play back, and rearrange to construct a mental map of places we have seen and experienced. Any habitual route that we travel on foot soon turns into a kind of urban spine—a physical corridor to which we link other destinations in an personal and evolving construct of place.

For these reasons and more, an urban room should form the core and ‘heart’ of each quartier (see The Donut Principle). Urban rooms also enhance people’s ability to find their way within the quartier. Even on the side streets, we will know where we are because we will remember where we left the urban room behind. Finally, because they provide an urban oasis protected from the dangers and noise of traffic, and allow people to mingle at close and intimate distances, urban rooms support social functioning at the scale of the whole quartier.

Chinatown Square

An urban room can be carefully designed as the ‘heart’ of the quartier supporting social functioning. As long as the square or the urban room is well conceived and 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 specific in mind.

People living within easy walking distance of the central square will likely bump into neighbours without having to call, e-mail, or text. The possibility for chance encounters enhances the quality, and multiplies social mixing in the quartier.

If the urban room is near their 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. It is a mistake to mix transit and pedestrian oriented places—typically transit dominates and takes over. Thus, the transit stop can be just around the corner, perhaps on the arterial, and the urban room can be just a shout away. However, the transit stop can share the same name as the urban room, and the quartier, thus participating in building the narrative of place.

 © Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, December 2011

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Urban Rooms drawn by Camillo Sitte (Vienna 1889)

“The Donut Principle” 

We know it’s a donut because it has a hole in the middle. Everything else is just pastry. In an analogous way, the centre of each quartier should be an urban room, public open space or square. We will come to know the quartier by the qualities embodied in the empty space that constitutes its heart—the hole in the middle—and by the clustering of uses around its periphery.

The Charrette will add density “within easy walking distance” of the heart, urban room, or core of each quartier. When 15,000 people live within “easy walking distance” of a central square or urban room, we believe the opportunities for social mixing will be greatly magnified.

The Charrette will not limit its analysis to the search of just one urban room per quartier. Rather, quartiers will emerge as a series of urban rooms, each with an intensifying periphery, link up to create a connected sequence of spaces. These are optimal urban conditions supporting walking, social mixing and the feeling of safety on streets and lanes.

Urban Room Principle

The square—or the urban room—brings together in one place the three measures of spatial sense perception: length, width, and height. Urban rooms can set up spatial relationships that will resonate with our human senses, and create memory images that will become useful aids in wayfinding.

Entering into an urban room is a threshold experience in urbanism, akin to coming upon a clearing in the woods.

Lewis N. Villegas, “The Gastown Principles”, march 2011



Maple Tree Square

Gastown fills with people as bands set up on the sidewalks of Water Street and in Maple Tree Square. Under the watchful gaze of Gassy Jack social mixing is taking place. Everyone is welcome. Most people are partaking of the most ancient of urban pleasure: the promenade (french) or passegiato (italian)—just strolling. The point is to get nowhere soon and people watch along the way.

To the left of the picture we see what was amiss on this early summer evening: the presence of traffic on Vancouver’s best urban space kills its sense of place and robs its ability to function as an urban room. This is no small problem since Powell-Water are part of a one-way coupling with Cordova that delivers 15,000 daily trips to the central business district. BRT/LRT on Hastings would bring that number down to zero and return to the people of Vancouver one of this city’s most memorable urban experiences.



Blood Alley

The Charrette settled on “Trounce Alley” as the model for the proposed intensification of the Historic Quartiers. Maple Tree Square next door may be a more important civic space, however this place provided to model for the Charrette’s residential intensification proposals. Dubbed “Blood Alley” during the 1970′s revitalization of Gastown, this Vancouver urban room is deceptively simple.

The proportions of the urban space on the lane fall within the whole-number ratios for “human scale”. The historic buildings at the south side of the square (fronting on Cordova Street; left side of the photo) are the reason why this space exists at all. The height of the two buildings are in a relationship to the width of the fronting open create the “sense of place” we experience when moving into this space. This phenomenon of human sense perception was systematically quantified by research undertaken in Germany in the late 19th century (Maertens, 1884), but described as early as the first century BCE by the Roman architect Vitruvius.

A 1800′s three-storey building is cheek-by-jowl with a structure of the same period built one storey higher. The buildings occupy just 50% of their site and were built “set back” from the lane on the Cordoba streetwall line. The result is that enough space is created in the centre of the city block for light and air to filter in. Designed in this manner, the mid-block space can be communal as is the case with the public square. Or it can be private, with 8-foot high garden walls creating individual plots behind each property in a row of urban houses. A minimum rear lane setback of 25-feet (7.5m) on each side is required to obtain sufficient separation between fronting residential uses mid-block.

Other less desirable factors combine to give this place it its current “forgotten” look: breaks in the continuity of the ground plane; a dearth of activity spilling into the space; and upper storeys that appear empty or under utilized.

© Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, December/June 2011.