Why ground floor activation matters in downtown San Jose

Downtown is changing, not only vertically, with new high-rises, but also at the ground level. New streetscape improvements, and park activations are happening monthly. But it is the ground floor spaces and interactions with the sidewalk that really showcases what city public life means. The above map, Downtown San Jose Ground Floor Activation, is a work in progress that shows current ground floor activations throughout downtown. The maps shows 9 different categories: Vacant, Under construction/Renovation, Restaurant/Bar, Residential/Hotel, Office, Retail/Service business, Cultural building, Parking lot, and Public/Private outdoor space. These 9 categories help to show the diversity of uses in downtown, as well as the potential opportunities for growth and change.

Why map out ground floor uses? Because it is on the ground floor where city vibrancy and public life exists and is most visually apparent. People coming and going from service businesses, or sitting on terraces have a drink or eating a meal, this all happens at the street level on the ground floor. Conversely, when a parking lot or garage is on the ground floor or at street level, vibrancy is greatly diminished, and the streetscape aesthetics and appeal also diminish. The other element of vibrant ground floor activation, is concentrated clusters of diverse uses. In downtown, it is the two main historic building areas, San Pedro Square and First Street south of Santa Clara Street down to Reed Street, that are the most vibrant areas, due to clustered and dense mixed-uses.

But why are these areas more successful than others in downtown? Because they are pedestrian friendly, and are high sensory areas. Aesthetically speaking, the famous Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl, has looked at the sensory experience of being in the urban environment. Humans have a sensory attention span of around 4 seconds and Gehl professes that streets made for pedestrians are made of buildings planes and details that change every 20-24 feet. Meaning that a person at walking speed (3-5mph) is more attracted to streets with a high frequency and rhythm of doors, windows, and building details that change often. And buildings and streets that are built for vehicles traveling five times the speed of pedestrians(25mph), usually consist of large blank walls with building entrances fewer and farther between. These modern designed buildings and streets are still consistent with a 4 second sensory experience, but because vehicles are traveling at a faster rate, the distance between changes can be designed much father apart(100 feet).

The goal of this map is to inform and provide data to support what makes ground floor activation(or lack thereof) successful in downtown San Jose. It is also a resource to provide caution for new development project designs, to pay attention to how the building interacts with public life, vibrancy, people. Because people are the ones ultimately using the space whether for work, for play, or for living, if the ground floor isn’t designed for people, then it won’t be successful addition to the streetscape.

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2 thoughts on “Why ground floor activation matters in downtown San Jose

  • John

    As a resident of the Downtown, I want the area to thrive and be more vibrant. One of the biggest inhibitors, especially in the historic district, is the high vagrancy issue that continues to drive business and visitors away. The constant harassment for money and food, along with the strong offensive smell of urine and dope, does not make for the pleasant, active environment that you speak of in your post, and has lead to the very high vacancy rate in the street level retail in the downtown area despite the residential growth.

  • Thank you for the updates of Downtown.

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