New Book on Urban Design

A new book by Reid Ewing and Otto Clemente, Measuring Urban Design: Metrics for Livable Places (Island Press, 2013) includes a chapter by BEH researchers.

The chapter, by Kathryn Neckerman, Marnie Purciel, James Quinn, and Andrew Rundle, reports on a study of urban design in New York City. Reid Ewing and colleagues developed an audit protocol for measuring urban design qualities. With funding from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research, we used this protocol to measure urban design in a sample of neighborhoods in New York City. During the summer of 2006, student interns at Columbia criss-crossed the city to characterize the streetscape on 588 block faces. 

Following Ewing’s protocol, we examined five urban design qualities. Imageable places have a memorable or distinctive quality; imageability is measured with indicators such as non-rectangular buildings, plazas, and historic buildings. Enclosure is the quality of a well-defined and room-like space; indicators of enclosure include a “street wall” in which buildings are lined up adjacent to the sidewalk rather than being deeply set back behind parking lots. Human-scale places have smaller-scale buildings and street furniture that suggest a streetscape designed for pedestrian use. In transparent places, human activity beyond the street wall is visible (as with ground-floor windows) or at least implied. Complexity refers to a density of visual detail, and is indicated by multiple buildings with a variety of colors as well as other visual stimuli such as public art, pedestrians, and outdoor dining.


Estimates of the urban design qualities of Imageability, Enclosure, Human Scale, Transparency and Complexity across NYC estimated from data from 588 block faces.

Manhattan neighborhoods tended to score the highest on imageability, enclosure, human scale, and transparency, while Brooklyn neighborhoods scored the highest on complexity. Neighborhoods in the Bronx scored the lowest on imageability, human scale, and complexity.

These differences across New York City’s boroughs partly reflect neighborhood characteristics such as age, population density, and income. Block faces in older neighborhoods tended to score higher on the qualities of enclosure, human scale, and transparency. Those in higher-density neighborhoods scored higher on imageability, enclosure, transparency, and complexity. Block faces in high-income neighborhoods scored higher on human scale.

Based on this research, we developed a set of digital measures of urban design, described in a 2009 paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. This work led eventually to our work using Google Street View to study urban environments, for instance in a recent paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

For more information about the book, and to order online from Island Press at a 25% discount, see  Measuring Urban Design: Metrics for Livable Places.

This entry was posted in Active Transport, Aesthetics, Urban Design. Bookmark the permalink.

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