Urban Design Dimensions: 4.Visual Dimension



Architecture and Urban Design are described as inescapable public art forms. While observers can choose whether or not to experience art, literature, and music, Urban Design does not afford such a choice. In their daily activities, people must pass through and experience public parts of the city environment.


Aesthetic appreciation of the urban environment is primarily visual and kinaesthetic. Experiencing urban environment involves all our senses. Jack Nasar (1998) identified five attributes of general public’s preferable environments:

  • Naturalness
  • Upkeep/Civilities
  • Openness and defined space
  • Historical significance/content
  • Order


As we always experience the whole rather than any single part in isolation, we appreciate environments as ensembles, ordered, visually coherent and harmonious.

Smith (1980, p. 74) argues that our intuitive capacity for aesthetic appreciation has four distinct components that transcend time and culture-

  1. Appreciation of rhythm
  2. Sense of rhyme and pattern
  3. Recognition of balance
  4. Sensitivity to harmonic relationships


MAKING SENSE                     INVOLVEMENT




Environments easy to organize or structure


Environments with enough in the present scene to keep one occupied


Environments suggesting they would be explored extensively without getting lost.


Environments suggesting that, if they were explored further, new information could be acquired.

Kaplan and Kaplan (1982, pp. 82-7) suggest ‘coherence’, ‘legibility’, ‘complexity’ and ‘mystery’ as informational qualities of environments that contribute to people’s preferences for particular physical environments.

graphical representation showing similarity
i) Similarity: enables recognition of similar or identical elements amid others through repetition of forms or of common characteristics (e.g. window shapes)
Graphical representation showing Proximity
ii) Proximity: enables elements that are spatially closer together to be read as a group and to be distinguished from those that are further apart.
Common ground-Common enclosure
iii) Common ground/common enclosure: whereby an enclosure or a ground defines a field or group. Those elements within the field or ground are distinguished from what lies outside.
graphical representation of orientation
iv) Orientation: whereby elements are grouped through a common orientation, either through parallelism or convergence towards a void or solid.
graphical representation showing enclosure
v) Closure: enables recognition of incomplete or partial elements as wholes.
graphical represention of continuity
vi) Continuity: enables recognition of patterns that may or may not have been intended.

Source: Adapted and extended from Von Meiss, 1990, pp. 36-8­


The experience of an urban environment is a dynamic activity involving movement and time- ‘the kinaesthetic experience. The environment is experienced as a dynamic, emerging, unfolding temporal sequence. To describe the visual aspect of townscape Gordon Cullin (1961) conceived the concept of ‘serial vision’ and argued that the urban experience is a series of jerks or revelations with delight and interest being stimulated by contrasts by the ‘drama of juxtaposition’.

serial vision
the concept of ‘serial vision’ by Gordon Cullin (1961)


Positive and Negative Space:

positive-&-negative-spacesPositive Space:

  • Relatively closed, outdoor space which has a definite and distinctive shape.
  • Conceivable and can be measured.
  • has definite boundaries
  • discontinuous (in principle), closed, static, but serial in composition.
  • its shape is as important as that of the buildings surrounding it.

Negative Space:

  • Shapeless E.g. amorphous residue left over around buildings
  • inconceivable- discontinuous and lacking perceivable edges or form.

Creating Positive Space:

For all ‘hard’ urban spaces, three major space-defining elements exist the surrounding structures, the floor and the imaginary sphere of the sky overhead.

Streets and Squares:

Although positive urban spaces come in a variety of different sizes and shapes, there are two main types- Streets (roads, paths, avenues, lanes, boulevards, alleys, malls, etc.) and Squares (plazas, circuses, piazzas, places, courts, etc.).

Streets are dynamic spaces with a sense of movement; the width-to-length ratio is greater than 1:3.

Squares are static spaces with less sense of movement; the width-to-length ratio is less than 1:3.

Streets and squares can be characterized as- ‘formal’ and ‘informal’:

Iqbal Maidan- a famous square in Bhopal
Iqbal Maidan- a famous square in Bhopal
image showing view of a typical Indian street
view of a typical Indian street
  • have a strong sense of enclosure
  • orderly floorscape and arrangement of furniture
  • surrounding building that enhances formality
  • often symmetrical in layout
  • relaxed character
  • wide variety of surrounding architecture
  • often asymmetrical in layout

The Squares:

A square usually refers to an area formed by buildings. To better understanding of the aesthetic qualities of squares, Camillo Sitte and Paul Zucker’s Ideas are of particular value.

  • Camillo Sitte:

He advocated a ‘picturesque’ approach to urban space design in a pictorial sense- ‘structured like a picture and processing the formal values of an organized canvas:

  • Enclosure
  • Freestanding sculptural mass
  • Shape
  • Monuments
  • Paul Zucker:

He outlined five basic types of ‘artistically relevant’ squares which represented ‘organized and contained spaces’:

  • The closed space- space self-contained
  • The dominated square
  • The nuclear square
  • Grouped square- space units combined
  • The amorphous square- space limited

Squares rarely represent one pure type and frequently bear the characteristics of two or more.

The Street:

Streets are linear three-dimensional spaces enclosed on opposite sides by buildings. They may or may not contain roads. Streets for can be analyzed in terms of polar qualities, the combination of which give scope for great diversity- visually dynamic or static; enclosed or open; long or short; wide or narrow; straight or curved; formality/informality of architectural treatment.

sketch of a crowded Indian cityTownscape:

Townscape results from the weaving together of buildings and all other elements of the urban fabric and street (trees, nature, water, traffic, advertisements, etc.) so that ‘visual drama’ is released.

Buildings seen together gave a ‘visual pleasure’ which no buildings can give separately.



Visual aesthetic character of urban environment derives not only from its spatial qualities but also from

  • the colour, texture and detailing of its defining space
  • activities occurring within and around which contribute to its character and sense of place
  • its architecture and its landscaping

Buchanan (1988b, pp. 25-7) argued that building facades should:

  • create a sense of pace.
  • mediate between inside and out and between private and public space, providing gradations between the two.
  • have windows that suggest the potential presence of people and that reveal and ‘frame’ internal life.
  • have character and coherence that acknowledge conventions and enter into a dialogue with adjacent buildings.
  • have compositions that create rhythm and repose and hold the eye.
  • have a sense of mass and materials expressive of the form of construction.
  • have substantial tactile and decorative natural materials, which weather gracefully.
  • have decorations that distract delights and intrigues.

The criteria of structuring and informing and appreciation of urban architecture:

  1. Expression
  2. Order and unity
  3. Integrity
  4. Plan and section
  5. Detail
  6. Integration


While well-designed landscaping adds quality, visual interest, and colour, poorly designed landscaping detracts from otherwise well-designed developments. Landscape design strategies should be developed before or in parallel with the building design process and play an integral part in an overarching urban design framework.


Two main types of floorscapes can be identified in urban areas- ‘hard’ pavement and ‘soft’ landscaped area. A floorscape’s character is substantially determined by

  • the materials used (e.g. brick, stone slab, cobbles, concrete, etc.),
  • the way they are used,
  • how they interact with other materials and landscape features.

A change of flooring material can indicate a change of ownership (e.g. public to private), indicate a potential hazard or provide a warning. The floorscape pattern often performs the most important aesthetic function of breaking down the scale of large, hard surfaces into more manageable human proportions.

Street Furniture:

alternative to street furnitureStreet furniture includes hard landscape elements other than floorscape- electric pole, lighting standards, benches, planters, traffic signs, bollards, boundary walls, railings, fountains, bus shelters, statues, monuments etc.

In addition to contributing to identity and character, the quality and organization of street furniture are prime indicators of the quality of an urban space.

In Glasgow City Centre Public Realm, Strategy, and Guidelines, Gillespie (1995, p. 65) offers a set of six general principles:

  • Design to incorporate the minimum street furniture.
  • Wherever possible, integrate elements into a single unit.
  • Remove all superfluous street furniture.
  • Consider street furniture as a family of items, suiting the quality of the environment and helping to give it a coherent identity.
  • Position street furniture to help create and delineate space.
  • Locate street furniture so as not to impede pedestrians, vehicles or desire lines.

Soft Landscaping:

Soft landscaping can be a decisive element in:

  • creating character and identity,
  • enhancing the temporal legibility of urban environment by trees and other vegetation that suppress changing season.
  • playing an important role in aesthetic pleasure.
  • adding a sense of human scale.
  • providing a sense of enclosure.

For all landscape schemes, hard or soft, English Heritage suggests an eight-part strategy:

  • Appearance: have regard for historic context and local distinctiveness.
  • Consider the suitability of materials and their combination for the tasks they perform.
  • Design for robustness in terms of long-term maintenance.
  • Cleansing: consider ease of refuse collection, sweeping, washing, and specialist cleaning of graffiti and gum.
  • Avoid clutter, by keeping signage to a minimum and using existing posts or wall mountings.
  • Have a concern for pedestrians: through a welcoming atmosphere and clear directional signage.
  • Have a concern for people with disabilities: for safety, convenience, and removal of obstacles.
  • Traffic and related matters: consider public transport, cyclists, and pedestrians crossing the carriageways.


Buildings, streets and spaces, hard and soft landscaping and street furniture should be considered together, to create drama and visual interest and to reinforce or enhance the sense of place.

This is a Summary of the Dimensions of Urban Design from the Book “PUBLIC PLACES- URBAN SPACES by Matthew Carmona, Tim Heath, Taner Oc and Steven Tiesdell, Architectural Press


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