Outdoor places to linger rival paths in importance

“Good city quality at eye level should be considered a basic human right wherever people go in cities… Of all the city planning tools available, attention to this small scale is the most important.”

―Jan Gehl. Cities for People.

What better place along a path to spend time outdoors than a nook with a seat in pleasant surroundings on a nice day big enough to share with a friend?

What better place along a path to spend time outdoors than a nook with a seat in pleasant surroundings on a nice day big enough to share with a friend?

You can’t talk about places for walking without talking about places for halting. While out for a walk, we stop, rest, look around, talk, en route or as a destination.

And places to linger require almost equal billing with the paths to reach them for a couple of major reasons: First, in lively places, we spend a great deal more time standing and sitting than we do walking. Second, because we have to be comfortable for a longer period of time, we demand more of places where we linger than we do of places where we simply walk.

The amount of time spent walking from place to place is relatively short compared to the amount of time spent at a destination once it has been reached. In fact, about 90 per cent of the people found outside in downtowns are typically not walking at all, but lingering―sitting at an outdoor café, talking to a friend, waiting for a bus or light rail, watching the street scene from a bench.

We will ignore the discomfort of ugly surroundings, noise, and bad weather when we have to walk somewhere—to reach work, school or home, perhaps to exercise. But we will go for a stroll—enjoying the scene or smelling the roses—only when the day is nice and there is a pleasant scene to enjoy and roses to smell.

To linger we require even more in the way of physical comfort: sun when it is chilly, shade when it is hot, a nook to stand in, a wall to lean against, or a bench to sit on. We insist on other things, too—

  • a place that is not so small that we feel hemmed in and not so large that we feel exposed,
  • partial enclosure in a space totally visible to us,
  • long enough sightlines so we cannot be surprised by any untoward approach.
  • enough other people so we feel safe and have something to watch, and
  • enough quiet so we can carry on a conversation,

We also want the place to have many details at eye level to engage our attention, not blank walls and massive signs overhead. We know when spaces have been designed for motorists, and we avoid them in favor of places designed for us.

If conditions along streets and in squares are uncomfortable—littered with obstructions and trash, challenged by the danger of traffic and the annoyance of noise, then we will only walk where and when we have to. We will not take discretionary strolls, and we certainly will not linger.

The stringent requirements for idling outdoors are the reason why seeing people lingering outside is the best indicator of a livable place.

A groundswell is growing to create pedestrian-friendly urban centers worldwide. The design issues are diverse but well understood. What is needed for attractive walkways goes double for lingering: relative quiet, slow traffic, moderation of weather extremes, adequate travel and sitting room, semi-enclosed, convex spaces small enough and open enough to see and be seen, with irregular edges, many building entries, many signs and details best appreciated up close at eye level, and other people and activities.

Since half the world’s population now lives in cities, creating invitations like these to inhabit streets and squares will from now on determine the quality of life for the majority of us humans.

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