Place:Non-Place Ratio
September 29, 2014

At the Strong Towns National Gathering I gave a rapid 8 minute presentation on walkability and the scale of the environment, which included a piece on Places and Non-Places. If you attended my presentation or have read my previous blog post on Places and Non-Places, you will know that I categorize land use into either Places or Non-Places. Places are destinations - parks, plazas, and building interiors - while non-places are the padding between destinations - highways, parking lots, and greenspace. From a walkability perspective, Non-Places use up valuable land area without contributing anything. Some Non-Places are neccessary infrastructure, but a good city planner should attempt to minimize the amount of land assigned to Non-Places as much as possible.

During my presentation I showed a few examples where I took a satellite image off of Google Maps and hand coloured the Places in blue and the Non-Places in red. I have had multiple requests to share those examples so I am sharing them here. When we colour in the Places and Non-Places, we can get a really good idea of the contrast between the two, and if we count the number of red and blue pixels we can come up with a Place:Non-Place ratio.

Here is a neighbourhood in San Francisco;

Here are the Places and Non-Places;

There is a Place:Non-Place ratio of 406,550:95,689 or about 4.25:1 (81% place).

Here is downtown Pheonix;

Here are the Places and Non-Places;

There is a Place:Non-Place ratio of 334,027:368,354 or about 0.9:1 (48% place) which indicates that more land is used for Non-Places than Places.

Here is a commercial corridor in suburban Little Rock;

Here are the Places and Non-Places;

Out of curiosity, I came up with a Place:Non-Place ratio of 43,290:510,226 or about 0.08:1 (8.5% place), but to be fair, much of this land is underdeveloped and some of it is hard to judge, so I darkend the areas I was unsure about. The remaining bright red areas are all freeways, roads, parking lots, and greenspace;

There is a Place:Non-Place ratio of 27,370:288,178 or about 0.09:1 (9.5% place). We can see that there are very few places supporting all of that infrastructure around it. In the above example, 10.5 times more land is dedicated to Non-Places than Places! Is this even a financially viable way to build a city? No.

Compare those examples and ask yourself - which one is more more walkable (the topic of my talk)? Which one is getting their money's worth out of their infrastructure?

I encourage you to make maps like these of your own city. You can imply a lot from such a simple comparison.

Challenge your imagination - is it possible to build an environment that is 100% place?


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What is 2 + 9 ?

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Nathan Lewis • 01.02.2015 • 08:05 AM (MST)
The real estate brokers call this a "curbless" suburb, which itself is an interesting distinction.
Nathan Lewis • 01.02.2015 • 08:04 AM (MST)
Hi Charlie, Yes, the two-acre-zoned exurbs of CT achieve the ideal of "rural-like" living as you describe, or what I've called the Martha Stewart Fantasy (Martha is from Westport, CT). Alas, the expense and effort necessary to maintain this is extreme: first, the cost of buying a two-acre plot within a commutable distance to employment at the job that allows you to buy a two-acre plot; the cost in time and effort and expense of commuting; the automobile dependency inherent in two-acre zoning; and finally, once you've gone that far, you might as well go all the way with a big fancy house. This is a difficult and expensive way to live even at $400,000/yr household income.
@katalinscherer • 11.17.2014 • 22:41 PM (MST)
sorry, the URL didn't post for my pic. Here it is: http://i59.tinypic.com/2cn7gqt.jpg
@katalinscherer • 11.17.2014 • 22:40 PM (MST)
This is one of the most walkable areas of Tucson - University Medical Center area just north of the UA main campus. Public transportation abound.Places are marked in magenta. I love the "open space" designated by googlemaps. Its an ugly patch of empty dirt.
adam old • 10.08.2014 • 20:48 PM (MDT)
It seems to me that counting streets and all non-building spaces as non-places might be a mistake. A lot of the work from Project for Public Places is done about fostering the communal gathering areas on streets, and restoring them to their former character, which—although maybe not exactly a destination—provide a vibrant place of interaction between neighbors. In terms of Ad Valorem Tax Revenue your model works out quite nicely. because most roads are certainly not tax generating enterprises.
Andrew Price • 09.30.2014 • 07:03 AM (MDT)
Zeph - I took your overlay and got a Place:Non-Place ratio of 59,046:665,864, about 0.09:1 (8% place) - similar to the suburban Little Rock example.
Zeph • 09.29.2014 • 22:41 PM (MDT)
Here is most of my home range: http://i.imgur.com/AoMiLPC.png Mostly the bottom half, which includes: - the local grocery store - some fast food joints and a couple restaurants - a gas station/convenience store - an apartment complex The top half has - the public library - my dentist - my insurance salespeople - another apartment complex - various small banks with drive-thrus - a cowboy boot store (lol) - some car repair/detailing businesses - mystery buildings There is a gap between here and the next town, which lies east, and which is also sort of my home range, but I go there less frequently. Here is its place/non-place overlay: http://i.imgur.com/U6QQ67u.png I didn't include shared garages (but did include detached private SFDR garages), overhangs for drive-thrus, and the nearby carwash.
Andrew Price • 09.29.2014 • 15:54 PM (MDT)
Thanks, Jesse! Zeph - yeah - that's greenspace! You can usually tell the difference between a park and greenspace. A park has a name. Also, it's not socially awkward to let your kids play or have a picnic in a park. I think I described greenspace the best in my STNG presentation (I'm quoting myself here): "The purpose of greenspace is either to prettify the area because it would look pretty ugly if it was just grey pavement from the highway to the parking lot to the building, or to buffer the buildings from an otherwise unpleasant street. This is unnatural, because if the street was pleasant, you'd get the most value being located up against it - as close as possible to the centre of activity." In the suburban Little Rock example, I had to darken and ignore much of it because it because I was starting to blur the line between yard/greenspace/vacant land, so it wasn't fair to include it in my comparison. It's much easier to make the comparison in a fully built up area.
Jesse Bailey • 09.29.2014 • 15:50 PM (MDT)
One thought that occurs to me looking at figuregrounds like this is in the San Francisco example, you have places AND places. That is, the buildings are places unto themselves that then shape the spaces between them. The spaces between (streets, squares, alleys) have spatial definition. In the sprawl example, you have a few places, surrounded by non-place. The space between is an amorphous blob. Great stuff.
Zeph • 09.29.2014 • 15:41 PM (MDT)
That's fair. I think about it in this area where there are lots of "green" areas that are totally useless, like these wide grass-only green bars which act as a median as well as a "buffer" between the street and other Places: https://goo.gl/maps/DboQS
Charlie Gardner • 09.29.2014 • 15:25 PM (MDT)
Yes, for many areas, how “green space” is defined will greatly affect the ratio. Based on Andrew’s previous post, I take “green space” to be functionally useless planted area intended solely to buffer against or mitigate the noise/water runoff/ugliness of auto infrastructure. A private park, on the other hand, even though it is not widely accessible, still is a place designed for human use, just as one’s private apartment or home is so designed. By that standard, New York’s Gramercy Park, even though it is private, is very much “place.” The yard of a suburban house seems like a closer call, and to some extent yards are buffer space against cars, but this is not their sole function, or even their most important, and backyards generally don’t buffer against traffic at all. Fundamentally they are spaces designed for human recreation and enjoyment, even if they receive exceedingly sparing use relative to their size. I guess overall I would second Andrew’s point and not try to link together place and density/intensity – it should be possible to have an entirely urban area that is 100% place, and an entirely rural or even wilderness area that is 100% place or nearly so (a countryside of vineyards, farmhouses and winding dirt roads, for instance, where a person can freely wander – is rural Tuscany not a “place”?). However, under the American planning system, I would maintain it is much easier to create an area of high place-to-non place ratio in low density rather than high density environments, and much of the dread of density, from the very beginnings in the 1920s, arises from this awareness.
Andrew Price • 09.29.2014 • 14:36 PM (MDT)
Hi Zeph, I thought about defining 'greenspace', but I wanted to keep the recap on Places and Non-Places brief, on the assumption that people would read my previous blog post if they are interested in further information. 100 destinations are better than 1 destination. A place that can be used by 10,000 people is better than a place that can be used by 500 people. A Place:Non-Place ratio merely distinguishes between Places and Non-Places, without distinguishing between different types of Places. I have had a few suggestions to come up with a 'weighted' Place:Non-Place Ratio, using PAR or p/m^2. This might be good if you're trying to calculate a Walk-score or something similar, but the purpose of a Place:Non-Place Ratio is to point out the white elephant in the room - how much land area we waste. I don't want this to be misinterpreted with a weighted ratio where a high-rise justifies a parking lot or freeway. This isn't to say that you can't use another metric alongside P:NP such as a neighbourhood-wide FAR, or a Public-Place:Private-Place:Non-Place ratio.
Zeph • 09.29.2014 • 13:54 PM (MDT)
I think it might be worth separating out green space (maybe even private vs public green spaces) to clarify the Place/Non-place point. For instance, a golf course is a lot of 'green' and by this metric a 'place' but they are usually private and have very low user-density figures (by nature of the rules of the golf). This gives a good metric but adding another usage dimension to it e.g. 'people per square meter' might be helpful. So for a private golf course, the p/m^2 is really low, but a public park of the same size would be higher. A rich old retired couple who own a 2+ acre of land would also be very, very low, since the public at large can't really use it without the owner's approval. If you figure out a desirable minimum usage density, Places below than that would tip over to Non-Place designation.
Andrew Price • 09.29.2014 • 13:42 PM (MDT)
Charlie, thanks for dropping by and commenting. What I think you're saying is that auto-oriented infrastructure (traffic lights, stop signs, traffic lanes, parked cars) is unsightly and unpleasant. I agree with you. Growing up in Adelaide, my favourite parts of the city where the places where there where no cars - Moseley Square by the beach, Chinatown and Rundle Mall in the CBD, the Torrens riverfront, the botanical gardens, inside of shopping malls. There is something magical and pleasant about spending a day out in a place that is 'humane'. Noisy cars and copy-and-pasted traffic lights and marked lanes seem to spoil the magic.
Charlie Gardner • 09.29.2014 • 13:11 PM (MDT)
I think this ratio can actually help explain the aesthetic appeal of very low-density suburbia in the context of a car-dominated transportation system. Give the criteria described here, the more spread out a single-family residential neighborhood is, the higher its ratio of place to non-place will be. This is due to the fact that the larger the lot sizes are, the higher the ratio of land to street/road will be, and the easier it will be to conceal automobile infrastructure. Based on my experience with Connecticut towns, Nirvana is attained with two-acre zoning, where one can live a totally car-dependent lifestyle with virtually no visible and unambiguous car infrastructure - no street parking, no traffic lights, no striping of roads, no sidewalks (sidewalks are an implicit reminder of cars and traffic), just the occasional stop sign. If we consider yards as "place," which I think is fair, being more analogous to private parks than to "green space," such a neighborhood would reach upwards of 90% place. The aesthetic of two acre-plus zoning is euphemistically referred to in the Northeast as "rural character," or sometimes, oxymoronically, as the "rural character of the town." Once you start increasing density, it becomes harder and harder to conceal the auto addiction. The only way to beat the example above, on the numbers (and apart from an area which is actually "rural"), is with the traditional city.