Open spaces should only be semi-open

A space feels overly enclosed when the borders are much taller than the width is wide, such as at this street in lower Manhattan.

A space feels overly enclosed when the borders are much taller than the width is wide, such as at this street in lower Manhattan.

Since both paths and gathering places are types of outdoor spaces, it’s worth spending a moment considering what it takes to carve a separate space out of the overall landscape. Very little, it turns out.

We humans detect the slightest changes in elevation, vegetation, color, or character—we can, after all, detect something the thickness of a quarter like a high tension line at more than half a mile. We are also constantly reading the landscape for meaning.

As one result of these two faculties, we mentally assemble spaces from merest suggestions. If the suggestion is long and thin, we construe a path; if  roundish or squarish, we suspect a place for sitting, lingering. In another light, four posts define an outdoor room; a narrow shelf across a slope, a path.

So spacemaking is simple, yet subtle.

Test this yourself. Get a group of friends together to stand shoulder to shoulder on a large lawn. Ask everyone to take a step backward. Ask them if they think your bodies are forming a boundary to a space. Take another step backward, and ask the same question. Then another and another.

Ultimately, ask if there is any point beyond which you will NOT be forming a space.

Your bodies are forming a spatial boundary that is permeable. After your first backward step, anyone can walk out of the space formed by your upright bodies. We humans prefer such partial and permeable enclosures. Full enclosure—solid roof, solid walls—is either a prison cell or an inviolable sacred space, like the inside of a stupa; something we can’t get into or are dying to get out of.

Enclosure can be excessive even when there are openings, as when solid, tall walls press in on an alley. So, for instance, the ratio of height of buildings to width of streets is critical to great street making.

Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan invites people in with rows of trees that step down the skyscrapers, soften the edge, and permit passage in and out of the park.

Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan invites people in with rows of trees that step down the skyscrapers, soften the edge, and permit passage in and out of the park.

That’s probably why we love historic urban squares; they tend to be only partially enclosed and surrounded by low buildings. The Piazza del Campo, for example, is surrounded by five-story buildings and has only narrow breaks for side streets, streets that enter at oblique angles or curve away allowing us to leave but maintaining the sense of enclosure that is the piazza.

By contrast, fully open space—announced merely by a change of color or elevation or texture on the ground plain—leaves us visible and vulnerable to anything approaching from any side or down from above. A roof at least protects us from sun and rain and hides us in the shade.

The Piazza del Campo hints at the fact that we care about the location and kinds of enclosure openings. We especially prefer walls that protect our backs, with openings that permit views forward and escape to either side. Wild Bill Hickok lived by this rule and, legend has it, died for ignoring it.

Openings need to be at eye level to permit outward views, and when they are small the enclosed space they pierce feels larger and safer.  However, narrow gaps―like slits between wall planks―make a small space feel even smaller and more enclosed, more like a trap than a room–even when the slits’ openings add up to the same area as an eye-level window.

There are all manner of enclosures and permeability. Some enclosures block movement and sight (the brick wall), some movement only (a glass window), and others sight only (fog). Some block humans but not rabbits (hedges), others rabbits but not humans (low wire fences).

Meanwhile, some enclosures (fences with stiles) allow some people to pass while blocking others (wheelchair users). Again, designing a use- and user-appropriate space is a subtle undertaking.

A few years later as a landscape contractor, I was asked to make a picnic area in front of two apartment buildings at right angles to one another. There was already a gently sloping lawn with a fine view of a tidal lagoon and the Portland city skyline, but no one used the space because it was too large (150 meters on a side) and too open (just lawn).

To create a smaller more enclosed space, I leveled an area 30 meters squared, the area closest to the buildings, and spaced five trees along the outer edge. Raising that far edge a half meter and planting the trees was enough to suggest an enclosed area even when the trees were small. Tenants quickly brought out a picnic table and Adirondack chairs for enjoying the view.

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