Places and Non-Places in Cities
October 15, 2012

In my previous blog post I talked about the future of the effects and consequences of building a city around the car. In this post, I will be talking about one of the most important concepts when planning or analyzing a city; Places and Non-Places. I will describe how to recognize the differences between places and non-places, and why the goal of every good urban planner should be to minimize non-places.

What Are Places?

All of the land used within a city can be classified into two categories: places and non-places. Places are for people. Places are destinations that a person would go out of their way to purposely visit. Whether it's a place to sleep, a place to shop, a place of employment, a place for entertainment, or simply a place to relax - it has a purpose and adds value to a city. Building interiors are the most popular common types of places found in cities. Examples of outdoor places include:

  1. Streets
  2. Parks
  3. Gardens
  4. Plazas

Non-places on the other hand are not designed for people, and are not destinations. They do not bring value, or a reason for people to visit or live in a city. In most cases they're used for transportation and fill the space between places. Examples of non-places include:

  1. Roads
  2. Parking Lots
  3. Greenspace

Now for some examples of cities that I have randomly chosen.

Houston. Low Place:Non-Place ratio.

Darwin. Medium Place:Non-Place ratio.

San Francisco. High Place:Non-Place ratio.

Stockholm. Very high Place:Non-Place ratio.

Those which a higher Place:Non-Place ratio are certainly more interesting places to visit, and are more likely to attract tourists than those with a lower Place:Non-Place ratio, and arguably, have a higher quality of life. Not all non-places are bad, and in most circumstances you do need some non-space to make a city functional, but the purpose of good city design should be to maximum the Place:Non-Place ratio while keeping the city functioning.

What It's Important

It all boils down to the most fundamental issue in urban design: cities should be built for people. Non-places are dangerous for pedestrians, and combined with the fact that they take up space, they dramastically decrease the walkability of a neighborhood. By discouraging walkability, you're discouraging pedestrians, and encouraging car dependency. Maintaing a consistant flow of pedestrains is important in any city for making the area feel safe and inviting - as the constant flow of eyes on the street discourage crime. You also inherit all of the problems of a car-dependent city as I covered in my previous blog post;

  1. Oil dependency
  2. Expense
  3. Urban sprawl
  4. Social isolation
  5. Declining small businesses
  6. Obesity
  7. Car deaths and injuries

Cities should be interesting, and places are interesting. Therefore, a good urban designer should try to minimize the amount of land occupied by non-places in a city. Having less than than 10% of your land categorized as a non-place is desirable. Dedicating more than 50% of your land to non-places is absolutely terrible!

Having a high Place:Non-Place ratio has many benefits that are not mentioned above - including increasing the quality of living for the residents that live within the city and stimulating the local economy by attracting tourists (because cities with high Place:Non-Place ratios are interesting to visit!)


You may have noticed above that I categorized parks and gardens as being places, while I have categorized greenspace as a non-place. That's because there is an important distinction between them. A park is a place for people to gather. You walk your dog to the park, you can eat your lunch in a park, and children can play in a park. Parks come in all shapes and sizes from small urban parks;

To large parks like Central Park in New York City:

A garden is an asthetically pleasing place with a purpose. You can have private gardens of all shapes and sizes, such as in backyards where people can grow plants and flowers in. You can also have public gardens that allow picnicing, or you can have gardens that document different species of plants for research purposes. They're usually much more maintained and restrictive than a park (no running or touching the flowers!);

Greenspace, on the other hand, is a non-place. No one likes to be facing a busy road watching traffic all-day, or overlooking a flat dull parking lot. So to decorate the other non-places (such as parking lots) and act as a buffer between us and the much busier non-places (the road) we invented 'greenspace';

Greenspace arose as a neccessary evil to product us from the less asthethically pleasing non-places, while in turn are also a non-place themselves that are not destinations, and thus they become part of the problem. If our streets were asthetically pleasing in the first place;

There would be no non-places to escape from, and thus no reason to buffer ourselves from them. Infact, if we owned a business, we'd want to be as close as possible to the street to attract foot traffic. The important distinction between parks, gardens, and greenspace is that parks and gardens are destinations. You go out of your way to visit a park or a garden. Greenspace is just 'there' - you can't picnic in it, you don't go out of your way to visit it. Greenspace simply doesn't add a destination or 'value' to the city and just wastes space and arises because of the other non-places around it.

Roads and Streets

It is also as important to have a distinction between roads and streets. Roads are non-places that simply aid in getting to your destination. Expressions such as "hitting the road" imply that you are travelling. Roads designed for automobiles are also noisy and dangerous and are not designed to be experienced at a human scale;

Streets on the other hand are places designed for people. Streets are social environments where people are free to gather and interact. The expression "hitting the street" implies that you are joining into the community;

Streets are not only places, but are usually more asthetically pleasing than a road, and therefore the desire to build greenspace to buffer against a street (versus a road) is much smaller. A street can have a road run through it;

But simply adding a sidewalk to a road does not turn it into a street;

A sidewalk does not make a road a street. A street is a destination, which implies there are many interesting activities on that street that makes it a destination. Otherwise, a sidewalk is just a narrow human road, in contrast to the greater automobile road running next to it. I cover the concept of non-place streets a little later below.

Undeveloped Land

Undeveloped land - that is a vacant block that has no use, is hard to classify as a place or non-place. If the undeveloped land is on the outskirts of a city, then in all fairness it should not be considered a place or a non-place - it's simply not part of the city yet. However, if the undeveloped land is dividing other places within the city (for example, a fenced off block in the middle of the city) - then for all intents and purposes it falls under the category of a non-place as it is serving as a filler between the other places around it. However, if the undeveloped land is actively maintained to be enjoyed by the public (such as being used as a park along a river) then it could be classified as a place. Therefore, it is up to your best judgement if an undeveloped piece of land is a destination that adds value to the city (a place) or simply a non-place filling the space between other places in the city. It is always within the best interest of a city to encourage infill development over suburban sprawl, to increase walkability and decrease car dependency. By following the model of classifying undeveloped and abandoned land as a non-place, infill development will occur naturally during the process of maximizing the Place:Non-Place ratio.

Non-Place Streets

There exists certain situations where a street can become a non-place, despite technically being a place and having the physical qualities of a street. A street needs to be designed for people for it to be a place. If a street is not designed for people, then it can become a non-place street. I will go through examples of some types of non-place streets.

Abandoned streets are non-places. These are streets devoid of life, that people purposely avoid, and feel asthetically uninviting. An abandoned street is still technically a street but it's very inhuman and unpleasing and just occupies space that could be put to better use;

The main issue here is that there is nothing interesting on this street - all you see are the back and side walls of buildings. Abandond streets are uninviting because they look like they could attract criminals. To make this street a place again, you will need to introduce places to it, for example small retail:

Infact, you don't have to do any development, just clean up the street and let local artists occupy it instead:

Then you have uninteresting streets. Like the abandoned streets, there's simply nothing to do here;

All you have around you are walls. There is nothing to do on this street so it just feels cold and souless. There is nothing wrong with having tall buildings, but keep the ground level interesting by integrating human scale retail into the base of the building;

That's the Empire State Building. The Empire State Building should be used as a model for good skyscraper design. Despite being next to a 101 story building, it doesn't feel as intimidating as the flat concrete wall from the previous image. This is because they built the bottom of the building at a human scale - with human scale shops facing the street. It's not until you look up that you notice how tall the building really is. They make use of the traditional human-scale 5 story building as a pedestal for a much larger skyscraper to combine the best of both worlds. This pedestal design allows for progressive setbacks as the height increases so that at street level you do not feel claustrophobic, while still allowing you to build an incredibly tall building;

Wide streets are just as bad as abandoned streets. The occasional wide street can be good, but in a lot of cases they are simply too wide for their purpose;

It's important to build your streets at a human scale! Your streets should be as wide the amount of foot traffic that you anticipate on them, otherwise they feel abandoned and souless, and the middle becomes an empty non-place with no purpose that just spreads out the places around it. However I'd like to provide a destinction between wide streets and plazas:

Plazas are a good use of open space - as long as you build them in moderation. They have a purpose - they should be just the right size of the type of event they're designed to hold. But it's important to build them in moderation - you do not want every corner of the city to be like that. Open-space is important, but don't over do it. Instead consider more moderate designed plazas in 'landmark' positions around a city;

While your typical corner should be no larger than:

Street Width

While on the topic of streets, it's important to talk about street width. There are two things to consider when deciding upon the width of a street; it's function, and the building height. It's important to keep the streets within proportion to the height of the buildings on it. The wide avenues of New York City work because the buildings are so tall that it all stays within proportion;

But combine wide streets with small buildings;

And it's blown completely out of proportion and ends up looking plain and unasthetically pleasing. Why does this next street below look so much more charming?

Because the streets are in proportion! The buildings are the same height, but the street width is much more suited for those buildings. It's also important that the street width be relative to the function of the street. Look at this quiet residential area;

Why is this road so wide? There are less than a handful of houses on that road. In any 30 minute period that road may receive perhaps 5 cars driving through and a couple of pedestrians. Apparently that was enough traffic for them to conclude that they need to segregate automobiles and pedestrians, and make the entire street wide enough to fit two sidewalks, three automobiles side by side, and greenspace on each side. All of that wasted space is a non-place that is pushing the houses futher out that neccesary. Ridiculous! Infact, wide roads encourage speeding. This looks much safer;

Perfectly appropriate for it's purpose, yet still safe and charming. The more narrow street is much cheaper to maintain (there is less surface to maintain). I also assure you that when everyone leaves for work, the narrower road would feel much less crowded than the wider road - because on the wider road everyone will be reversing their cars out, while the more narrower road would encourage its residents to simply walk to work or take public transportation. But what if you don't want to live in a townhouse, and you would like to live in a deattached house with a yard?

Much more pleasant and human scale than a car-dependent suburb. Everything shown in that image is a place - houses, gardens, streets. Where would you park your car though? Rent a garage on the outskirts for when you need to go into the country. But if you're still in the mindset that you need a car to navigate a city on a daily basis, then you still haven't got the message. What about a bigger yard? Well I don't know about you, but if I could open my door to this every morning;

And have this within a 15 minute commute (either by walking or taking public transportation);

That somebody else maintains with my tax money so I'm just left to enjoy it - I wouldn't ever want a big yard! Remember - that's a park, not greenspace. If I did want a bigger yard, I'd move to the country, not stay in a city!

Radiant City

The radiant city is an example of subarbanism gone completely wrong. Seduced by its blinking lights, the radiant city, when viewed from the ground level, is nothing more than skyscrappers in the suburbs;

Lots of greenspace, ultrawide roads. How would it feel to actually live there on a daily basis? You can't even walk to the building next door! Imagine the traffic!

That's not a city - just skyscrapers in suburbs. This is a city;

Use the radiant city as an example of what not to do. Tall buildings don't create a city. A high ratio of Place:Non-Place does.

It's Not About Population

It does not matter if you live in a town of one thousand people or a city of one million people. Good city design is good city design. While it's always better to get thing right at the start so the city can grow around a good founding model, encouraging good city design is crucial at every stage and does not require a small or a large population to get it right. The following images show a high Place:Non-Place ratio in a small town with a couple of thousand people;

But you can also continue to build human scale streets in cities with several million people without feeling crowded;


Good city design is about maximizing the ratio of Place:Non-Place. While not all non-places are bad, it is desirable to keep them to a neccessary minimum to ensure that a city remains inviting, charming, interesting, safe, and walkable. What I've talked about here is ultimately not actually about places and non-places, but about designing cities for people. If you're in the mindset that cities are places for people, not cars, then good city design and a high Place:Non-Place ratio will inheriently come out of it. Even a badly design city may be efficient at moving people around and may have a strong economy, but cities are living organic entities that contain people, not machines. How a city designs and functions affects the quality of life of thousands, if not millions, of people - and the ability to maximize the quality of life of not just us, but also those around us, is the ultimate pursuit of happiness.