Architectural style doesn’t matter (height to width ratios do)

If you’re like me, traveling to Europe is basically a never ending visual feast. But in Edinburgh earlier this summer, I saw what seemed like a bizarre combination of European architecture with a Utah-esque street:

A wide street in Edinburgh's new town.

A wide street in Edinburgh’s new town.

This street has a lot going for it. The buildings are interesting and have good street engagement, and the street terminates at an awesome church.

But it’s also much wider than most streets I’ve seen in Europe. Much like a street in Utah, this one includes parking in the center, two lanes of traffic, and enough space for additional curbside parking.

And as you can see, there’s almost no one on this street. Despite the beautiful old buildings all around, this is basically a car-centric expanse that’s noisy and unpleasant to experience. I walked the entire length of the street and, perhaps worst of all, it was boring.

By contrast, just a few blocks away, pedestrians flocked to this street:

A pedestrian lane in Edinburgh.

A pedestrian lane in Edinburgh.

There are three big differences between these two streets. First, the street in the second picture had more retail and restaurants, which certainly makes a difference. However, retail naturally gravitates to places people enjoy (or it goes out of business), so more retail on the second street suggests it has better design. (I’m ignoring zoning for the sake of brevity here, though I realize that could be factor.)

Second, one of the streets is pedestrian-only, the other is not. However pedestrian malls only work if there is demand for them — or in other words, if people are already using the street — so pedestrianizing an empty, underused street like the one in the first picture likely wouldn’t have much impact.

And finally third, the height to width ratio is completely different on these two streets. In the second picture, the tall buildings and narrow street create something like 2:1 or 3:1. In the first picture, that ratio is reversed.

I think that’s the most important difference. Indeed, the architecture on the first street is actually more stereotypically beautiful while the second street intersperses old buildings with relatively boring modern ones.*

So what is the lesson here? I think it’s that people and the businesses they support naturally gravitate to streets with tall buildings and narrow streets.

The surprising thing  is that the actual appearance of the buildings on these streets seemed to have almost no impact on how many people were using these streets. In the end, the narrow street with the tall buildings was where everyone wanted to be. The car-oriented wide street was basically abandoned.

* I suspect someone is going to read this and say that the first street’s architectural monotony contributes to its failure. My counter argument would be to look at Paris, which has row after row of similar buildings but still fairly lively street life. Indeed, the first street is basically a Parisian boulevard with the top half of the buildings cut off (and the trees ripped out). In other words, Paris’ success in comparison to this Edinburgh street again suggests that building heights are more important than architecture.


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