Front doors are an important part of the urban landscape. Irish doors may be the most famous example (just Google it). I have successfully advocated for front doors in the past, and I even came up with the GDA, or Gehl Door Average, based on Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People, whereby only when there are 10 or more doors per 100 meters of street frontage can you consider it “friendly.” Gehl isn’t simply calling for more doors, but rather that doors add to the quality of our “eye-level” experience of place, and designing doors properly is key to making streets and cities more walkable. Today we’ll be looking at urban residential front doors, and the following isn’t intended to attack architects or developers but to highlight that we have done better, and can do better.
If front doors are so important, let’s check with a couple other experts. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes, “A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. It means something only in conjunction with the buildings…that border it.” Flip that around and the same might be said for front doors. In my observation, many recently-built residential front doors are indeed an abstraction, as they don’t seem to relate to the sidewalk in any meaningful way, nor seem built for human pedestrian use. Others are quite good.
In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander explains the importance of an “entrance transition” between the street and the inside (Jacobs is also emphatic that there be a clear demarcation between public and private space). It is all to easy for architects and developers to either not address this or overdo it. In walkable cities, a residential front door should be dignified and provide enough privacy through setback, elevation, or both. It is easy to mess up both.
A recent stroll down Oak Grove Street in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis provided me with some good and bad examples, and reinforces the observations of Gehl, Jacobs and Alexander. Apartment buildings dating to the pre-World War II era tend to get it right most often. As shown below, entrances don’t have to be numerous as long as the primary entrance provides a good experience for the pedestrian (as well as the overall quality of the building’s architecture). This door has a wide, welcoming entrance set slightly back from the sidewalk to establish private space, is clearly marked with a pedestrian-scale sign, and has a substantial awning for getting out of the weather. This main entrance cannot be missed or mistaken, and would make Alexander proud.
This smaller apartment building has steps that seem to protrude in to the public realm (although they likely end at the lot line), and the pillars with flower planters frame the entrance well and help to establish where public space ends and private begins. A small awning provides shelter from the elements. Perhaps more importantly, the steps provide not only access to the building but also a place to sit.
Even an otherwise architecturally unremarkable 1960/70s-era high rise has a humane front entrance, protected from the rain and snow, and steps wide enough for significant foot traffic and informal meetings.
Farther down the street, this front door at 301 Oak Grove is an epic fail. Not only does this rather long building miss an opportunity to have individual front doors for ground floor units facing the sidewalk, just getting to the main entrance is a bit of a chore (see below). There is no direct access to the sidewalk. While the wheelchair access ramp is important, apparently the pedestrian is not. Of course, the garage entrance has direct off of, and faces, the street – a suburban building in an urban setting.
The brand new VUE Apartments on Oak Grove incorporate individual front doors for ground floor units. A person standing on the sidewalk (below) can see there are steps leading to something, but it appears to be an HVAC unit. The door doesn’t face the street. The steps are staggered with an odd landing halfway up that serves no purpose and the “patio” at the top is on the small side and set too far in to the alcove of the building. The steps are not conducive for sitting, either. It’s as though the front door was intended to meet a requirement but not actually designed for dignified human use – I don’t know what Jacobs might call it, but I call this front door an “abstraction.”
Elsewhere in Minneapolis, these units at Mill District City Apartments have a front doors, and while they face the street, the steps and landing seem to hang off the building like an awkward appendage. There is barely room for a chair, and it isn’t likely that someone will sit on the steps. The elevation of the building doesn’t help (presumably there is parking below).
Looking down the sidewalk from the same vantage point one cannot see the building. Greenery has its place and should be used to accentuate the view to and from the street, not block it. What is the point of “eyes on the street” if you can’t see the street? Furthermore, why on earth are there shade trees planted on both sides of the sidewalk? To me this is a classic Minnesota urban mistake; we’re not in the Boundary Waters, after all. I’m guessing the city asked the developer to include walk-out entrances to these units, and the architect did what was allowed in the code. But the result seems as though it wasn’t entirely thought through, and the cluttered greenery and cantilevered steps seem to be an excuse for the door requirement rather than functional use by a human.
It is possible to overcome the elevation difference between sidewalk and unit with more of a classic New York front stoop, like here (below) in Brooklyn. This stoop is functional for ingress and egress and excellent for sitting and watching the street activity. For the Mill District example above, I’d have widened the steps and had them descend straight to the sidewalk. Why do I get the sinking feeling that nothing here is to code in most modern cities?
In the North Loop of Minneapolis these late 1990s front entrances at River Station seem pretty nice, but are a bit too prison-like. The transition between public and private is a little too blunt, a bit overdone with a six foot tall gate.
I much prefer this front door in Vancouver (below). It clearly but elegantly demarcates public and private, provides some greenery and a private patio elevated slightly from the street. It provides an opportunity for Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” as well as having their backs protected while looking out towards a larger opening, following the writings of Alexander.
This example from Portland, Oregon (below) also sets a good standard for front doors.
On Park Avenue in the Mill District in Minneapolis (below), these ground floor units get the front door right, like the Portland and Vancouver examples.
The entrance transition at Third North in the North Loop in Minneapolis is elevated and set back in to the building slightly, but perhaps is too abrupt.
There are subtle differences here at West River Commons (below) that make this front door superior. The entrance is set back in to the building a little farther, is elevated a couple steps higher and is better framed by plantings that more clearly delineate the transition between public and private space. Furthermore, the units are narrow, so the pattern of front doors is more frequent and consistent, repeating every few feet.
Security and property management is often cited as a reason to not include individual walk-out entrances. This is short-sighed and unfortunate, particularly near the University of Minnesota campus where such a high proportion of people indeed walk. Missed opportunities like the 412 Lofts (below) leave the streetscape with much to be desired. Walk-out units and front doors would have added so much.
At The Marshall in Dinkytown, walk-out units were included, but something is off. What little grade change is addressed with elongated steps (who likes to walk these kind of steps?), which could very well be bypassed by just walking on the grass. This, combined with lack of vegetation or articulation, leaves one wondering where public space ends and private begins. And the “patio” is lacking in size and definition and may not be used as such; it’s just a concrete pad.
This example, also at The Marshall, frankly leaves me at a loss for words….
There is much to like about these handsome front doors at Mill & Main in Minneapolis. Despite there not being a grade change, the building is set back enough for delineation between public and private. That said, a small gate and kneewall like the Vancouver, Portland and Park Avenue examples would help immensely.
I get it. So many factors determine design, like grade changes on a site, and the always evil parking factor dictates a huge role in what elements can be accommodated and what gets engineered or budgeted out. If we started the development process with the front door and ground floor design overall, results would be different. After all, we used to get it right most of the time, and while developers, architects and planning departments are obviously trying, we can do a much better job.
Why is this so important? A city that is genuinely trying to be walkable must not only build public infrastructure that truly prioritizes the pedestrian, not just accommodates them, but also has buildings that relate well to those streets, and therefore front doors are very important. In a perfect world, a common sense approach would suffice; if the developer, architect and planning commission agree they’d be comfortable walking in and out of that door every day, then it is probably good enough. What is likely needed are changes to the code that specifically address placement of doors, which way they face, and how they are framed, alignment and width of front steps, building articulation, some kind of ratio of setback and elevation, and what takes priority when compromises are required. We need to do a better job of building cities for people, and front doors are a major piece of the puzzle.
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.
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