Rez de Ville

As a human interacting with the built environment, what contributes to a vibrant and pleasurable urban experience? Urban planning and architecture thought leaders such as Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl proposed the interaction between individuals and the edges of urban design – such as sidewalks, ground floors, and streets – defined our use of city centers. Rather than focusing on designing a city around ease of access via car, a new emphasis was placed on centering “human scale” design and interactions to encourage street level activity, multiple modes of mobility, as well as more diverse and enjoyable interactions. How has this movement, started in the 1960s, evolved and what lessons can be learnt from the application of this urban design ethos in a global setting?

Seeking to enrich discussions around urban ground floors, the MIT City Form Lab hosted the seminal Rez de Ville conference, an event that brought together practitioners and scholars from around the world to examine the complex and evolving landscapes of urban ground floors. The conference offered a multidimensional perspective, encompassing a broad range of topics that extended from theoretical concepts in architecture and urban design to pragmatic challenges like the impacts of the climate crisis and disruptions generated by technological innovations. Structured into four key sections—(1) Urban structure, networks and routes, (2) Built typologies, uses and accessibility, (3) Natural and social ecologies, and (4) Analytic techniques and representation—the event provided a comprehensive analysis of urban ground floors, tackling everything from design innovation to policy implications. 


Urban structure, networks and routes
The current state of urban ground floors often favors specific uses—such as vehicular traffic—at the expense of public life, walkability, and inclusivity. Participants argued for a more holistic approach that recognizes the ground floor as a vital public space serving multiple functions and populations, from commercial activity to social interaction, and from the needs of the younger working population to those of older adults. Stephen Marshall and Feng-Shu Chang examined the building-street interface in Taipei’s Da-An District, revealing how certain types of interfaces are more conducive to outdoor activities and walkability. Gary Hack explored the changing nature of ground floors in North American cities, highlighting transformations in legacy streets, suburban malls, and single-family areas. Peter Norton critiqued the American city's focus on vehicular needs at the expense of public spaces, urging for a reevaluation of prescriptive standards that have led to the privatization of public areas. Ellen Dunham Jones, Jun Wang, and Yilun Zha investigated the impact of the Work From Home phenomenon on ground-floor retail in Atlanta, contrasting urban and suburban responses. Anastasia Loukaitou Sideris discussed the experiences of older adults navigating the ground floors in U.S. inner cities, calling for more inclusive design that prioritizes the needs of this demographic. 


Built typologies, uses and accessibility
Presenters emphasized that flexibility, adaptability, and a focus on public spaces are critical to addressing modern urban challenges. Brent Ryan proposed that Philadelphia’s flexible lot and block structure provides a more adaptable model for urban design than other street networks like New York's. His framework suggests that this layout can better address a host of contemporary urban issues such as walkability and affordability. Soraya Boudjenane and David Mangin argue for a nuanced understanding of the urban ground floor, introducing categories like frontage, porosity, and depth to analyze the use of space more comprehensively. They believe these categories can provide valuable insights when planning both public and semi-public spaces. Valter Caldana and Guilherme Wisnik focus on the Brazilian concept of an “infinite span” in ground floor architecture, discussing how the goal of creating public spaces led to innovative design choices that appear to make buildings 'float.' This approach directly counteracts trends towards the privatization of public spaces, offering instead a vision for more open and collectively used areas.


Natural and social ecologies
In their presentations, scholars and activists suggested that traditional norms and regulations may not be sufficient or even appropriate as we move forward, requiring fresh, interdisciplinary approaches to urban planning and design. Erick Gregory discussed how regulations can influence the social vitality of New York City's ground floors, particularly when facing difficult design decisions during the COVID19 pandemics. Elizabeth Yarina explored the intricate balance between flood management models and the rapidly changing flood conditions in Can Tho, Vietnam, raising questions about the efficacy and inclusiveness of these models. Kian Goh considered the future of ground floor urbanism in the context of climate change, suggesting that traditional design principles may need to be revised. Margaret Crawford looked at the unique role of mini-malls in shaping the urban terrain of car-centric American cities, challenging conventional urban ground floor typologies. Miho Mazereeuw and Angela Loescher-Montal scrutinized the limitations of property-level regulations for flood resilience in Boston, advocating for a collective approach.


Analytic techniques and representation
These presentations offered a range of analytic tools and conceptual frameworks for a nuanced understanding of urban ground floors. They addressed both the physical and experiential aspects, from advanced digital methodologies to socio-cultural mappings, revealing the multifaceted nature of ground floor spaces and the need for integrative approaches in their study and design. Liu Liu focused on the potential of Street View imagery for analyzing a riverscape in China, opening up new digital avenues for quantifying urban experiences. Andres Sevtsuk outlined a pedestrian modeling framework that connects land use, street quality, and spatial development to pedestrian mobility outcomes, providing empirical insights into how urban design interventions can influence foot traffic, as demonstrated in Beirut. Marie Petit Ketoff revisited Nolli's iconic map of Rome to explore how it can be updated to represent degrees of accessibility in modern urban ground floors. Pierre Alain Trevelo investigated the spatial and material dimensions of major infrastructure projects in Paris, considering their topographical relief. Rovy Pessoa Ferreira offered a socio-cultural mapping approach to understand the heterogeneity and dynamics of informal urban ground floors in São Paulo’s favela of Paraisópolis.

“Collectively, the conference underscores the importance of urban ground floors as complex, multi-layered spaces that are shaped by and, in turn, shape a myriad of factors,” says Andres Sevtsuk, director of the City Form Lab, and Justin Kollar, Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism Fellow. “A throughline in the presentations and discussions held during the conference was the call for an integrated approach to understanding urban ground floors that recognizes the symbiotic relationship between design, materiality, social interaction, and environmental considerations and one that aims to enrich the discourse and practice of urban planning and architecture.”

The City Form Lab focuses on urban planning, mobility and urban design research. The lab specializes in developing new software tools for researching relationships between city form and human mobility patterns; using cutting-edge spatial analysis and statistics to investigate how urban form and land-use developments affect urban mobility and business location choices; and developing creative design and policy solutions for contemporary urban challenges. By bringing together multi-disciplinary urban research expertise and excellence in design, the lab seeks to  develop context-sensitive and timely insight about the role of urban form and planning in affecting the quality of life in 21st century cities.

Learn more about Rez de Ville / Urban Ground Floors  
Learn more about the City Form Lab