Urban plazas and suburban decks aren’t just for sitting, they’re also for walking, and if the sidewalk collides with a café’s outdoor seating or we run into the barbecue grill heading for the steps down to the backyard, designer, we have a problem.
So in every outdoor space it’s critical to identify where adults and children want to walk, run, jog, skip, hop, or crawl and where they want to sit, stand, socialize, rest, work, eat, or play.
The hop-skip-walk places are called paths or movement spaces. The sit-stand-socialize areas are called stationary spaces, experiential spaces, or landings, and they are, of course, the major reason outdoor places were created in the first place.
We’ve already mentioned that the upper size limit in any dimension for successful gathering spaces is about 100 meters. Now we should talk about the smallest useful spaces, or their narrowest dimensions. What about those 6-foot-wide porches on contemporary houses or the similarly narrow balconies on apartment blocks?
A chaise longue, or a chair with a foot rest takes up that width as stationary space with no room for pass-by movement, so these are porch and balcony wannabies. Even 8-foot-wide decks barely function.
City setbacks squeezed my own backyard deck down to 10-feet wide from the 12-foot width I sought, but the deck functions reasonably well with an undersized table and chairs and carefully arranged movement spaces.
Arranging movement spaces is key to success in any space. Movement goals are the contradictory ones of granting maximum access while reserving the most space for doing other things. Movement spaces are most often defined by “desire lines” between doors, gateways, building corners, parking stalls, and steps.
Besides inadequate width, walking routes that conflict with sitting areas are most responsible for underused or uncomfortably small gathering spaces. “When sitting areas are bisected by traffic patterns, one never feels fully at rest,” notes Massachusetts landscape architect Walt Cudnohufsky.
Needed landings—stationary spaces at path ends, gateways, and intermodal transfer points—are frequently undersized or ignored. “The result of this prevalent oversight can be awkward, unsettling or downright unsafe,” Cudnohufsky reports. “There is insufficient room to pause, change direction, gather at a doorway, or rest. If the landing in front of a door is undersized, the visitor must back down the step or risk getting hit by the door.
Parking/walking conflicts must be avoided, too. As Cudnohufsky says, “An inadequate drop-off area beside a driveway forces the car passenger to step onto lawn or planting bed to be able to close the car door.”
When designing outdoor space, it is always important to map existing and proposed desire lines, and sitting spaces and landings for both damage control and visionary reasons. Areas of potential conflict between movers and sitters can be identified and redesigned, while paths and seats can line residential decks, playing fields, and urban plazas to assure their maximum comfort and use.