You can improve what you measure; and we aren’t

This is the next in a series of posts building on the Downtown Moves articles I did in late December at the site.

The Downtown Moves team did a sort of crowd sourcing exercise to identify the problems and some solutions for the downtown enviornment. City staff, consultants, and amateur planners/keeners like myself heard three prominent speakers on urban issues, then sitting around tables of six to ten people cranked out solutions to perceived problems. The consultants then sorted these ideas into major clusters.

This is a perfectly legitimate method of finding a bunch of things to do, quickly. I am not surprised they used this technique since it is strongly advocated by Ken Greenberg, one of the speakers, author of Walking Home (you can get it from the OPL), and consultant who floated, rather like a hovering godfather,  from table to table.

Nonetheless, this approach misses some of the things a more formal approach could have found. The traditional approach identifies problems, an array of solutions, tests then selects the measure. It is the approach best suited to bureaucracies and those attached to linear, systematic thinking. As such it works well with process-oriented civil servants, such as those that run the city.

The Greenberg crowd-sourcing method was quick but will the results be simply one-off project ideas or will they get incorporated into the slow and steady march of bureaucrats? I used to be strongly attached to the Greenberg method, wishing the city would just “do something” rather than fuss forever about process. But I now understand more the value of getting something ingrained into the city policies so that for every future project the staff is supposed to look at things like main street designations, etc.

So what do I think Downtown Moves missed?

A number of speakers and participants emphasized the fine grain, the mixture of businesses and storefront sizes that makes for a lively downtown. And lamented the dead spots. Sometimes these are inadvertently dead, like the front of the CBC building. Other times they are dead by design, for example those large building complexes with interior malls. Some are old thinking, the tower in the plaza of Place de Ville. Sometimes they suffer the dead hand of the NCC which combines so much built creativity with killer marketing that sterilizes what should be lively. Everyone agreed the downtown suffered from excessive city focus on moving cars in and out rather than that what the people do once they are downtown.

So what can we do about the dead sidewalk zones? This is the actual interface area between people and buildings.

Jan Gehl cites a popular measurement tool he has used in many cities. Developed in Stockholm in 1990, it applies a five point scale to “rate” every bit of building frontage in the downtown. This gives a score to every bit of sidewalk, and by mapping *  all the scores you can see at a glance how the downtown rates, where the good parts are, and where the disaster zones are.

With such a simple map at hand, it becomes easy to show developers and property owners, planners and politicians, that their next project or renovation needs to build on the high score or “fix” the low score. The City can also do some things itself to improve the low scoring areas, perhaps with street furniture, or encouraging a pop-up cafe to replace a curbside parking spot.

The actual scoring of the buildings is easy to do with volunteers; the entire downtown could be done in a Saturday morning. The map construction should be doable in just a day by someone skilled in e-mapping.

Once the core has been measured, and the map produced, the city can set goals for improving the core. Goals might include a x% increase in rating 1 zones of the next four years, or a x% decrease in low-rated zones. Mayors and politicans and BOMA would then find themselves being assessed over time by how well they improved (or ruined) the core.

We can improve what we measure. Thus far, we are not measuring.

Here is the rating scale, from Gehl, Cities for People:


* Technique: the Gehl book seems to indicate that every section of sidewalk / building interface is rated A through E. The scores can then be mapped. An easy way is to assign a line thickness to each letter, then show the lines along both sides of the street. At a glance, the deadest areas are visible, as are the “winners”. It is easy to understand and sell to politicans, planners, and architects.

8 thoughts on “You can improve what you measure; and we aren’t

  1. This is a interesting way of mapping out facades and front doors but, it is highly subjective and slightly unrealistic. It would be very difficult to build stores with small frontages these days because, they lack the floor area that banks want to get for the return on the investment of funding buildings and businesses. Having dealt with banks trying to start my own store, they made it very clear, the bigger the frontage and the resulting larger store is the best way for them to get back their money. The result is usually similar to what we will most likely see in most new shopping developments, a very small big box store that has to be packed to the roof with stock and a reasonably large boring front facade. The only way you can go against this trend is to locate in a very expensive area like the Glebe, or Westboro where realestate values favor small frontages but, you dramatically increase your chances of your business failing due to a lack of volume and display area.

    1. Haveacow: I really like the way the builder handled the base of the Preston Square development. It is chock full of narrow storefronts, with doors to the street, each storefront has a different colour sign that matches the colour of the individual awnings. Many of the Westboro buildings are well done too, for eg the Exchange by Domicile, the Picadilly a bit less so since the businesses are all double wide (but the doors are there … so maybe the next tennant…) and the 111 Richmond might be good too. Routburn built a succcessful condo with narrow storefronts and even put the apt entrance on the side of the building where it is quieter and they could maximize the rental space along the main street side. I suspect in a few years that the area right in front of the Our Lady of the Condos site will be a very vibrant shopping district IF we can convince architects to build-in a variety of storefronts at the pedestrian scale and not so much a boring row of identical storefronts designed to be seen at 50kmh which is what the current Richcraft architect, Rod Lahey, seems to like.

  2. I think this is a good tool to use when planning a “main” street, since it seems to favour retail and service space over residential, and seems to be the modus operandi of developers for newer buildings (storefronts at the bottom, condos on top) at least here in my neighbourhood of Westboro. However, some areas of downtown (Metcalf, O’Connor, Percy and Maclaren for example are full of Ds because they are all heritage appartment buildings and likely aren’t zoned for commercial). And to me that’s OK, I don’t want to walk by display window billboards trying to sell me stuff all the time.

    1. Bud – thanks for your comment. The Downtown Moves study area is only Laurier and north, so it excludes residential buildings south of the downtown but includes the mostly-boring ones west of Kent, where the city spent decades forbidding them to have any life on the ground floors! The study tool identifies weak areas, but it is of course up to the city and planners and the public as to whether we want to demand storefronts all along the side streets. Sometimes stores below apts works well — eg just south of Hardman’s IGA — or even used to be better but is now worse, ie the Albert at Bay apt hotel. And I think the Golden Triangle works well because the Greber plans encouraged a mix of building uses and storefronts at the bottom of many apts even when several blocks off the mainstreet.

      1. Thanks for the “downtown” definition in this context. Should have read the linked article as everyone seems to have a different one!

        Sadly, downtown Ottawa in that context has quite a few Es (anything in the “government office building district”, ie. Place de Ville, Minto Place, etc. as you already mentioned) Even the Main Library branch and the NAC building have large boring “E” sections, though at least they installed the Oscar Peterson sculpture to break up one notable one.

        With that said, would these areas benefit from storefronts? As Elgin and Bank St. south of Laurier are easily walkable as “destinations” to shop, and Chinatown/Somerset west is slowly blossoming into an “it” destination, can the core support/sustain more storefronts? Especially considering the already languishing Sparks St. Pedestrian mall?

        NYC is not what I would call boring (or to a lessor extent TO) but Wall St. and Bay St. are also predominantly E sections with little retail, but large monolith buildings. Maybe Ottawa’s “government office building” district is ours, though granted the Office towers here do not have the architectural flair or the history of the stock exchange or the many Art Deco office towers in NYCs financial district. Though, like downtown Ottawa, it does become somewhat of ghost town after hours and on the weekend.

  3. Bud — Yup, we’ve got too many “E” rated zones, although it might have been better to have six point scale so we could label them “F” as in failed zones. They need not be replaced or fixed by additional retail “storefronts” only. Once dead zones are identified, they could be repaired by introducing more active sidewalk uses, incl mini parks, pop-up parks, or even a few benches, as people are a major attraction. Even bike parking might be an improvement.
    A key benefit of the rating system is that it doesnt distinguish betwen govt and privately owned spaces, offices or residential, it only measures the vitality of the pedestrian space for pedestrians. Some fixes might be easy, eg retrofitting a blank facade or store “backs” with store “fronts”. Some are expensive – at least one famous tower on a piazza has retrofitted itself by building a two storey addition on the plaza so that it is livier with activity (PruBache in Boston). Some repairs might not happen until a new building is built – for eg, the podium bldg at pl de ville is to be replaced by a 23 storey tower, which offers a great opportunity to repair the sidewalk frontage. And I like the idea of too many storefronts – it reduces the rents, opens up opportunities for smaller franchises and maybe even independents, and marginal businesses (specialties) that cater to a small market segment. Competition and diversity is good!

    1. I would reserve “F” for non-building paved or gravel private lots.

      As in “there’s F-all here”.

  4. Why zones? It’s all based on doors – just count them! But really, shop doors should count more than residence doors! And what about cafés? They should count even more. I think the definition of the zone needs to be revised. And count bicycle racks!

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