As unreal as Whistler Village can sometimes seem (and isn’t that the point of a resort environment?), there are some valuable urban-design lessons to be learned.  Indeed, Whistler is a carefully considered construct by Eldon Beck, the California landscape architect who in 1978 did the inspired lay-out of the village when it was still a garbage dump at the end of a gravel road.

Eldon Beck

Beck took the original design – a typical urban grid with major arterials and large parking lots on either side of the retail zone – and, using his knowledge of successful European ski resorts, created a series of linked pedestrian spaces oriented to mountain views.  And, of course, key to the success of this dense urban environment, all the parking was put underground.

Whistler aerial

One of the most successful spaces is the Village Square, meant to be the place for major gatherings and impromptu meetings.  And it works.  I often wondered why it felt so comfortable – an ideal urban room – and so, thanks to Google Earth, was able to measure its diameter to the metre.

Whistler 50 m

And it’s not the only 50-metre plaza:

Whistler Plaza 2

Having heard that Beck had personally measured the great piazzas and squares of Europe, I wondered whether 50 metres was all that common.   Back to Google Earth for a quick tour of the continent.

Rome:

Rome

Munich:

Munich

Paris:

Paris

Paris Palais Royal

I thought I ‘d check out a space closer to home – perhaps the best urban square in North America, Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square.  Even though the square fills in one of the city’s famous 200-foot-square blocks, the actual space used for performance and display occupies just over 50 metres on the diagonal.

Portland

So what’s so special about 50 metres, plus or minus a metre or so?  Obviously, it creates a comfortable sense of enclosure, while both working at the individual scale and still accommodating large crowds. 

It’s urban design scaled for the pedestrian, before the 20th-century commitment to Motordom: urban design scaled for the movement and parking of cars.  As Whistler also demonstrates at the Marketplace:

Whistler Marketplace

More 50-metre models welcome….

Comments

  1. My first thought after looking at the comparisons was that the European plaza are much larger than the Whistler ones.
    The 50m measurements for Whistler look like the longest dimension (and a bit of a stretch at that), whereas for the European examples, the 50m dimension is often the shortest dimension, with the longer dimension being much longer than 50m – yet they still work.

  2. Its not only about the size of a plaza. The ratio of building facade height to width is also very important. If buildings are too tall compared to the space it will feel confining, if building are too short the space will feel too exposed and poorly defined.

    While not a plaza, Seattle has a few areas were the ratio of development height to street width, is in my opinion very appealing. See the google map link below.

    http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&om=1&ll=47.66697,-122.382492&spn=0,359.989196&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=47.667056,-122.382589&panoid=UGs1h8h50c1u-yihOGDK9A&cbp=12,321.22,,0,-3.49

  3. Fifty metres is half a block or so, and just about the distance at which I can recognize a friend and make out her facial expression—well enough, say, to know whether she’s glad to see me. I might spot a familiar person further away, partly by their walk and attire, and in a crowd I might not notice them until we got closer, but 50 m is pretty nearly the limit of genuine social interaction. Maybe that’s why modest plazas feel comfortable—room for lots of people, but not so big that you could be ignoring a friend, or failing to spot an enemy, that’s in the same space?

  4. Fifty metres is half a block or so, and just about the distance at which I can recognize a friend and make out her facial expression—well enough, say, to know whether she’s glad to see me. I might spot a familiar person further away, partly by their walk and attire, and in a crowd I might not notice them until we got closer, but 50 m is pretty nearly the limit of genuine social interaction. Maybe that’s why modest plazas feel comfortable—room for lots of people, but not so big that you could be ignoring a friend, or failing to spot an enemy, that’s in the same space?

    Mind you, I bet the acoustic character of the space matters, too. Revving car engines, echoing off hard flat surfaces, can render an otherwise pleasant space nerve-wracking, and a huge open beach can feel quite sociable, given silence enough to hear someone call out to you from a hundred metres away.

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