From the introduction to David Baker and Amanda Loper’s Focus on the First 20 Feet photo essay in the Urbanist, a compliment to Benjamin Grant’s piece on the importance of great ground floor design:

“Humans have evolved to scan their surroundings to scout for threats and opportunities. In the modern city, a speeding bus rather than a sprinting animal, may pose the threat while an inviting fruit stand may present the opportunity. And while we have cleverly devised ways to build upward, humans did not fundamentally evolve to look upward. Despite the detailed aerial imagery so common in architecture and urban design, we do not see, interact with, or experience spaces from a bird’s eye perspective. We commute, commune, eat, shop, share, and play amidst buildings and at ground level. Doing so, we are immersed in the first 20 feet of the vertical space around us. So why aren’t we designing it better?”

Their argument: more diversity and mixed-up uses – with intermingled “retail, residential, common space, open space, micro space, maker space, and light industrial space” are what the city needs.

9 thoughts on “Delving Into Great Ground Floor Design”
  1. And a lot less garage doors! Having alleys behind buildings where the garages and driveways are located makes an ideal streetscape, but in SF, the damage is already done.

    1. The downside of an alley is that it takes a fairly big bite out of the build-able lot’s depth. They’re nice but expensive.

    2. In many parts of the City were there are alleys, they’ve become mini-streets, leaving garage doors on both the street-street and the alley.

  2. That’s an astute observation about our focus on the first 20′. Yes, the quasi-suburban tract housing “wall of garage doors” that is found all over the city deadens the vitality of the street. It is just another of the ways that pervasive reliance on autos degrades our quality of life.

    We could actually have it both ways had planners and developers thought to consolidate off-street parking. Instead of creating a continuous garagescape, all of a block’s off-street parking could be consolidated into a neighborhood parking garage and the first floor of homes returned to human habitation. That would require a neighborhood HOA to manage, but that is certainly feasible.

  3. Well, preachy tones of moral superiority aside, in my experience the DB architect street level experience can work or fail, depending on factors beyond buzz words. Empty store fronts and stumpy little setbacks often generate a look like abandoned shopping Malls.

  4. I often think this when looking at models or bird’s-eye renderings. They are inspiring but fundamentally unrealistic. Streetscapes are as important as skylines. The Transbay Terminal’s rooftop park looks sexy in the flyovers, but in real life, on Mission Street? A nonentity.

  5. Unless the design of the elevated park turns out to be austere and unwelcoming (unlikely), that park will be jammed with workers and residents. It will be the model for other elevated green spaces that perhaps cap or altogether replace sections of highway network. And may the brutalist feel of he embarcadero complex be the first to take some new cues to rethink that place.

  6. Some thoughts noted make a lot of sense such as 1st floors that have both sufficient height but also sidewalk that are wide in area , I would like to think that building heights could be allowed a slight increase to allow an airy 1st floor for retail and public spaces ,
    also ,
    as an example of how to add green in neighborhood retail area look to the shopping district along Balboa in the Outer Richmond ,

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