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Design Thought Leader

Design of Our Surroundings Affects How We Feel and React

Have you ever wondered why you feel like you are driving so slowly down Freedom Parkway? Or you’ve tried to visit a friend in an area hospital and couldn’t find the front door from the street. Or you recently walked to the Braves game from the Georgia State MARTA station and it seemed to take forever to get there but didn’t think twice about the stroll on North Highland between Ponce de Leon and Virginia Avenue (surprise, it’s the same distance)?

In essence we instinctively react to place we are passing through and can’t always place what it is that seems awry. More than people realize it’s the design of place that caused your reaction.

Heather Alhadeff is senior transportation planner in the Atlanta Urban Design practice at Perkins+Will

For example, in the 1960s Freedom Parkway was initially conceived as a portion of an east-west highway to be known as I-485. The project was stopped in the 1970s after several lawsuits and protests. Fast forward and a deal was made for a portion of the highway to open as Freedom Parkway, a four-lane limited access road. Because its original design as a highway was kept, Freedom Parkway feels like you should drive faster. The cops seem to use that design flaw to their advantage with the not so uncommon speed trap.

After World War II, hospital design was driven by efficiency and car access, designed with multi-floor blocks without consideration to circulation patterns or visitors’ needs – it seems as if the buildings are trying to keep people out! Once inside a hospital we have to rely on extensive signage to find our ways. But finding the entrance in the first place can be a challenge.

Let’s talk about that walk to the Braves game. It was a hot afternoon and that stretch is all concrete, with no trees to provide shade from the fast moving cars and not a single storefront or business to entertain your eyes along the way. The blocks are very long and the signals are flashing their favoritism for the cars going through the intersection.

Contrast that with the stretch of North Highland, where you could stroll along busy sidewalks and slower cars with the shade of several trees, passing several residential streets in the same distance.

As David Green of Perkins+Will, an urban designer and a professor at Georgia Tech in the College of Architecture, wrote in an article for FastCo.com: “On the point about walkability, people like to walk through cities that have small blocks. It is almost coded into our DNA. It’s about making progress when walking but it’s about the perception of progress in space. Think about Manhattan, it’s a great city, an unbelievably walkable city. Manhattan has small blocks. But even so, you feel different walking down different streets in New York. Anyone who has ever been there knows that walking uptown is far more enjoyable than walking crosstown, regardless of the distance. Why? Because the blocks in New York are long and narrow. . . Walking uptown is more diverse, you cross more streets that take you to different places. Walking crosstown, on the other hand, is a haul to the next street. This goes back to the point above: when it comes to walkability, it’s more about the perception than the reality. This is true of walkable cities all over the world.”

Whether we are conscious of it or not, the design of our surroundings affects how we react to a place, whether we will linger, shop, relax, eat or invest in properties. In this series over the next few weeks David Green and I will be writing about what makes you react the way you do to certain places and how that relates to health care, economic development – even the transportation referendum.

— Heather Alhadeff


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