Chart of the Day: Pedestrian Perception of Buildings

Here’s an obvious diagram that we often forget about…

gehl chart ped viewing distances

[FYI, 1 meter = 3.2 feet; thus 5 m. = 16 ft., 14 m. = 46 ft., 23 m. = 75 ft, etc.]

It’s from one of Jan Gehl’s books, illustrating the actual visual perception of buildings from pedestrian point of view. What it’s showing is the relationship between distance and viewable building height. In other words, how far away do you have to be from a building in order to “see” it?

It turns out that because of the design of our human heads and eyes, the only part of a building that matters from the vantage point of the sidewalk is the very first floor. Everything else is out of sight, and out of mind.

In other words, the only time that people on foot even see or notice the “building as a whole” is from a great distance, such as from a freeway overpass, from across a river, or when they’re looking at a city’s skyline. Once you’re actually walking in and engaging with city buildings themselves, only the ground floor makes any perceptible difference to the sidewalk experience.

To me this seemingly simple fact is interesting in light of the conversation about what architecture should be focused on. Often architecture seems focused on the building as a whole, the way it looks from a distance. Meanwhile, for people actually walking around buildings, the only meaningful variable is the design of the ground floor.

2 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Pedestrian Perception of Buildings

  1. Mike Hicks

    This should be noted when designing store signage (and the related regulations). I often find myself walking to the outer edge of a sidewalk and craning my neck to figure out the name of a store — signs are often designed to be seen by a car in the street, and even then they’re often hard to read. Signs that hang out perpendicular from a building or at an angle like a marquee are better for pedestrians. Unfortunately, I think such signs are subject to extra fees because they technically occupy some of the right-of-way (even though they’re up in the air). Regulations like that ought to be repealed where they exist.

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