Elevating the Sense of Place: The First Impression of Urban Spaces
by Corrie Meyer, ASLA

A professional in the urban design field is responsible for the urban environment. That responsibility is primarily to ensure the health, safety, and welfare for the people in that place, but also to create an impression or a “sense” of that urban space. So what makes a strong sense of place in the urban environment? 

Writers including William H. Whyte, Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, and David Sucher have described elements of great urban environments that reflect the community well. The United States Green Building Council has even established a measuring system to create sustainable neighborhood developments (LEED: ND). In consideration of these concepts and principles, I believe that the following features are elements of an urban environment with a strong sense of place:

  • People of all types use and enjoy the space
  • People feel safe
  • People have the opportunity to watch other people
  • There is a distinctive culture
  • There are comfortable green spaces and landscapes (with art)
Brick Head 3, 2004 by James Tyler, placed in an urban park on Mass Ave. Image courtesy Schmidt Associates.
  • There is an inviting and comfortable aesthetic
  • People can arrive at the urban environment via multiple modes of transportation
  • Businesses are successful.

Visitors should also perceive these elements in a “blink of time.” In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell writes that in a moment’s time, one’s subconscious has processed its surrounding and established a fairly accurate first impression based on previous experiences.
An example of space that already reflects a good first impression—and is on track to move from good to great—is Massachusetts Avenue (“Mass Ave”) in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Mass Ave logo. Image courtesy Schmidt Associates.

Mass Ave is a thriving and established area also known as the Mass Ave Arts & Theatre District. It is a six-block mixed-use corridor a half-mile from the heart of downtown Indianapolis. The neighborhood prominently displays public art and is home to great local theatres, restaurants, and shops.

Locally-Owned Business “Mass Ave Toys.” Image courtesy Schmidt Associates.

Mass Ave is also six to ten blocks from key basketball and football arenas. But this distance from the sports complexes is just far enough away that sports fans do not tend to find Mass Ave on their own.

In light of this disconnect, local stakeholders have developed the “Mass Ave Placemaking Plan” to elevate its presence as a destination point in Indianapolis. The hope is to make Mass Ave a “must-see” location similar to visiting Times Square when you are in New York City, the French Quarter in New Orleans, or the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.

With this goal in mind, the firm Schmidt Associates has collaborated with the local community development corporation, Riley Area Development Corp. to update the 10-year-old Mass Ave Commercial Development Plan to take this urban place from good to great. The team conducted two public input sessions in late March and early April, 2010 to give Mass Ave stakeholders a chance to brainstorm. From these meetings, they assembled a series of goals for the corridor that include:

  • Increasing density and consumer spending
  • Creating a transformative experience for visitors with entertainment and art
  • Improving lighting and increasing circulation around Downtown
  • Improving the quality of everyone’s experience, so they consider Mass Ave as a “must-see” and “must-experience” destination
Creative ideas for lighting public art, trees, and iconic art on Mass Ave. Image courtesy Schmidt Associates.

The team and local leaders are now exploring capital improvement projects to accomplish the goals. The short-term tasks include improving the lighting with installation of tree lights and streetlight canopies, enhancing the landscaping, and installing iconic art before the Super Bowl lands in Indianapolis in 2012.

Designs for street canopy and tree lighting, district signage, and architectural murals on blank walls. Image courtesy Schmidt Associates.

Our responsibility as urban designers is to invoke, elevate, and strengthen the sense of place in these environments. We can accomplish this by working with local leaders, experts, and members of the community to transform these spaces. Although urban spaces are defined in a blink—with patience, persistence, and passion—they can become memorable places that locals and visitors alike want to experience.

Image courtesy Schmidt Associates.

Corrie Meyer, ASLA, is a landscape architect and urban planner at Schmidt Associates in Indianapolis, Indiana and can be reached at: cmeyer@schmidt-arch.com.

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