How We Use Them Turns Mere Urban Spaces into Positive Places

Cape Times (South Africa), March 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

How We Use Them Turns Mere Urban Spaces into Positive Places


If you've ever pushed a door when you should have pulled it open, you've experienced a failure of design. If you've struggled to find the ticket office at a train station, been flustered with a new model ATM or felt uncomfortable as you crossed a public square, then you can understand the dominance of design in all aspects of urban life.

Sometimes its influences are far-reaching, but hard to identify. Is it just a quirk of history that the top end of Long Street attracts a pulsating throng of night-time revellers while the bottom end is deserted? How did the design of Long Street buildings, or the street itself, encourage entrepreneurs to set up shop? What caused the shift of late-night club life from Sea Point to Long Street? On Lower Main Road in Observatory, why have bars and restaurants thrived on the south side of Station Road, while success on the north side has been less consistent?

It's easy to see that these trends are built on individual decisions made by business owners and their patrons, but what interests us is the role of design in those decisions. Design shapes the things we use and the spaces we inhabit, but it does more than that; it provides a handbook to guide us, and a measure of design's success is how well it provides direction. Much of that direction is a subtle influence on how we feel about a place.

We don't have to know music theory for a piece to evoke an emotional response; we don't need to understand biology to enjoy the beauty of nature; and we don't need to take a course in urban design to know when a place feels right. Sometimes we aren't even aware of our responses. We might have an office window with a stunning view of Table Mountain, and almost forget it's there, but still be subject to its charms. If that is true of nature, it must be true of cityscapes.

Planning and designing are political acts. The city's architecture - its structure and spatial relationships - constrains or frees us, depending on how we experience it. The buildings, spaces, textures, sounds and smells of the city provide context, and the level of freedom we experience is strongly influenced by our emotional response. …

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