What Should Developers Know About Vitality in Urban Design?


When we think about the precipice of community gathering, we conjure up images of ancient agoras and mid-century bazaars. These iconic city-centers are where people gathered before chatrooms, where they shopped before e-commerce, and where they told stories before social media. These were the center of life. And ever since these community cornerstones crumbled away to reveal our modern-day entertainment districts, architects and urban planners have been searching for a way to revitalize both the physical embodiment of a town square and the community building elements. Vitality is a measure by which planners may compare their own work with that of the bustling town market.


The most important element of any vital area is the people. By definition, vitality assumes the presence of a heterogeneous life force. The best quantifiable measure we have for understanding the vitality of a city center is the density of people present in the area. At approximately one person for every 150 square feet, you can assume an area is lively. However, as the number of people per square feet declines to about one person for every 500 square feet, the area is considered “dead.” In addition to density, we also look for diversity in vital areas. A collage of cultures is an intrinsic characteristic of vital urban design.


While large numbers of diverse pedestrian traffic could indicate an attractive area, the way people interact with each other and the space is an important indicator of the district’s capacity for excitement and entertainment.  Vital areas can be compared to a stage on which people play-out their personal drama, love story, or tragedy. One might notice flamboyant fashions and daring exhibitions including street performers, high-powered business people, students, activists, artists, and panhandlers connecting to each other and finding unexpected commonalities.


Another defining element of a vital area is the activities and opportunities that may be found there. One might expect to see commercial activities including shopping, eating, drinking, purchasing services and other forms of entertainment. But a pedestrian need not spend money to find an opportunity for activity. Gratuitous activities including political oratory, feeding pigeons, people watching, taking a walk, or photographing people and places are common sights. Because this is such a subjective indicator, consider if a variety of businesses thrive in this area and if they attract many kinds of people.  Are the products universal or niche? Are they luxury goods or common conveniences? The most vital areas will have a combination of all these elements. You will also benefit from considering the uniqueness of the area’s offerings. Where else in the world would you have the same opportunities for commercial or gratuitous activities? If the answer is (almost) nowhere, that’s a good indicator of vitality.


The final piece of the puzzle is the distinctive atmosphere present in vital urban design. In these places, pedestrians far outnumber automobiles. They’re designed for accessibility and walkability- so the obstacles associated with vehicles are non-existent. Buildings are rarely taller than six stories and are comprised of varying ages, styles, and in various stages of repair.

Why is this important for Developers?

Most tenants want to attract and keep customers in their businesses longer. The longer someone stays at a restaurant, store, or marketing activation, the more money they are likely to spend. Developing a center with high levels of vitality help you to realize that goal for your tenants; attracting new, exciting tenants in turn. Changing the existing dynamic will require that developers and landlords evolve the way they think about their spaces. Don’t incorporate more parking lots, drive-through restaurants, or curb-side shopping. Make people want to interact. Use your physical space to foster a community and you’ll see your dead space humming with vitality.