The social, civic and symbolic functions of the public realm: a comparative analysis of New Urbanist town centers and conventional shopping centers

Urban planning Retail trade Design Cities and towns Architecture United States of America

The extent to which physical planning and design supports the social and civic life of neighborhoods and communities is an area of longstanding debate within the planning literature. New Urbanism and smart growth suggest that the planning and design of a public realm can have a significant impact on the social and civic life of places. Since the early 1960s, however, the planning literature has suggested that personal demographics and predispositions are more important than design for understanding the social and civic life of communities. This dissertation provides the first examination of the extent to which the urban design and land use characteristics of New Urbanist town centers afford (enable or support) community social and civic activities. It employs a model of place-based affordance building on David Canter's theory of place and James Gibson's theory of environmental affordance.

This study presents data from a focus group, a pilot study, six comparative case studies, and a mail survey completed by 611 randomly selected residents living within three miles of New Urbanist town centers in six communities in the United States. The potential functions of town centers were identified through a literature review on urban history, place identity, sense of place, and the psychological sense of community. An urban design index was constructed to measure how closely the physical characteristics and land use of each study area fulfilled New Urbanist design principles. A wide range of personal demographics and attitudinal characteristics were collected for survey respondents. Respondents evaluated the extent to which each place supports community social and civic activities in 25 statements of place-based affordances.

Hypothesis testing using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods found that: New Urbanist town centers were perceived as much more positively affording a sense of community, public realm, and place identity for communities than conventional shopping centers, and; the social and civic affordance ratings were explained more by the physical characteristics of places than by the demographics, predispositions, or residential location characteristics of the respondents. The triangulation of findings from the case studies provided confirmation of the findings from the cross-sectional survey.

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