The Missing Flower Power in Walkability and Neighborhood Vitality
11 mins read

The Missing Flower Power in Walkability and Neighborhood Vitality

Urban planners, designers, and civic leaders often think of the presence of certain kinds of hard infrastructure as influencing how walkable and vibrant a street or neighborhood is: wide sidewalks, narrow roadways, buildings with visually interesting ground floors, curb bulb-outs, crosswalks, stoplights, and so on. 

In a similar vein, with the ongoing discussion on what to do with American downtowns in the post-pandemic era of high office vacancy rates and low amounts of pedestrian life, most of the focus has been on what to do with the buildings. But when we think about where we truly love walking, we likely think of places that have a softness to them. They’re visually rich in detail and, more often than not, full of not just greenery, but flowers. 

It’s instructive for all of us to ask ourselves: If we could go and walk anywhere right now, where would it be? Would it be a place of just hardscape, or would there be flowers? 

In fact, some of our earliest memories of exploring the world on foot are likely of being outside in some kind of nature big or small, where there was color, maybe scent, shade, and plants and trees that swayed in the wind. We subconsciously carry these memories wherever we go, oftentimes seeking out environments similar in shape and feel. 

I, John, remember spending hours out along the sidewalk playing with neighbor kids underneath the huge canopy of the old elms that lined the street. And I, James, remember when I was too young to read and used plants and trees as a kind of wayfinding system for getting home from school. 

It’s easy to write off plants and flowers as frivolous fluff, as the nice little add-on that you can provide when the budget is there. And yet they have the capacity to quickly make a deep setback seem shallower, to give the impression that one is walking faster than if they weren’t there, to provide visual interest that can change by the hour or day and that the buildings themselves might not be able to, and to brighten and soften our country’s downtowns, which far too often suffer from a deadening palette of beige, gray, and black. These are real urban design outcomes with lasting impacts for vibrancy and walkability.

Take a sample American residential street with, say, setbacks of 20 feet—actually shallow by U.S. standards—and the classic lawn leading from sidewalk all the way up to a line of shrubs along the building face. Walking in front of the lawn along the sidewalk, and absent anything in the vertical plane save the house, you will perceive the house as the thing you are walking past. As it is much farther away from your immediate view, it will feel as though you are very slowly walking past it. This is actually due to a sensory phenomenon called parallax, by which objects we view at a larger angle from where we are appear to move faster than those we view at a smaller angle.

By extension of this phenomenon, if you take that lawn out and add in flowering plants, grasses, assorted taller elements in the landscape, suddenly your eye notices these elements closer to you, they are at a greater angle than those farther away, and you feel as though you are walking faster. The effect is akin to being in a car and moving past trees in the distance slowly while zooming past signage just next to the road. 

Now imagine an entire street of front yards that are no longer lawns but flowering plants, all of which bloom at different times throughout the growing season. Not only does this botanical display create the effect of walking faster past these spaces, but it also gives you reason to stop, pause, and look. It piques your curiosity and caters to our deep desire for novelty.

Human bodies are hard-wired to subconsciously and constantly seek out a balance between newness and sameness. This balance is different for everyone and is what is thought of as our own window of tolerance. Too much newness, and we get anxious. Too much sameness, and we get depressed. Block upon block of just lawns and shrubs is the urban and landscape design equivalent of that excessive sameness. Yet if those same blocks are transformed into seas of flowering plants, and plants whose shapes and forms change over time, perhaps with grasses swaying in the wind, you have the sensory stimulation and novelty factor that can provide a sense of lightness and curiosity, helping to spare us from the doldrums of excessive sameness. In essence, the plants and flowers become a kind of ever-rotating series of storefront displays. And all without building a new building. The flowers are the urban design.

Here people might scoff and say that cost is an issue, and yes, hiring a landscape designer to entirely redo a front yard is prohibitive for most. But no one is saying that this new yard need be perfect and pristine. Kitty-corner from us is a front yard whose owners have allowed it to become populated with weedy Oxalis and nasturtiums. But in peak rainy season in the winter, the yard is awash in yellow, orange, and red flowers, providing endless Instagrammable moments for those who dream of being Insta-famous (if only just for a day). Other neighbors have started small, taking out just a portion of the lawn to start, then taking out more each year thereafter, the resulting garden slowly becoming populated with color and life over time.

Others will likely scoff that plants and flowers are prissy and feminine, to which we first challenge everyone who feels this way to question why it is that feminine is something negative at all. But beyond whatever subconscious or conscious sexism one might fall victim to, we will argue that it is precisely our historically more male and masculine approach to city building and design of prioritizing hardscape, space for cars, and treating our cities merely as economic engines that has gotten us into the mess we are in today: vast swaths of unwalkable, unpleasant streets, and urban centers and cores that few want to be in.

Indeed, it’s not just our residential neighborhoods and their endless swaths of lawn that suffer from an unceasing sameness. With the advent of the automobile, and in particular in the wildly destructive era of urban renewal, we spent years transforming our downtowns, once centers of not just commerce but also socializing and cultural production, into what amount to white-collar factories: bland, faceless buildings whose sole purpose is to house worker bees; little in the way of ground-floor interest; sunless wind corridors of streets, and a whole lot of horizontal surfaces of black asphalt and gray concrete. 

And yet discussions around revitalizing downtowns in the post-pandemic era have largely centered on what to do with buildings and less on how those environments might be enlivened through a thorough softening. In our insistence on focusing just on the hardscape and hard infrastructure, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. 

However, there are some instructive exceptions to this rule. Certain of our cities have taken bold steps to make at least parts of downtowns a riot of color by way of plants and flowers. The particularly urban Mag Mile in Chicago in springtime is resplendent in bright, cheery colors of endless blocks of tulips. And once the tulips are done, they are replaced by a new round of color. 

In London in spring, summer, and fall, many of the most urban parts of the city still make room for plants and flowers by way of hanging baskets, which adorn the fronts of buildings and hang from street lamps. The effect is a cheery softening of what could be a sea of hard edges and surfaces.

Even the city of Pasadena made its name by way of flowers, namely the rose. While the downtown of today is not particularly full of flowers, the city could re-embrace this history and make the rose not just part of the one-off parade but something that could more permanently soften its oh-so-SoCal wide streets and resulting high traffic speeds, both of which make Pasadena’s downtown feel much less intimate than it could. 

Up north in San Francisco, gallons of ink have been poured over what to do with its downtown, in particular the Market Street Corridor. If you watch old footage of Market Street from the early 20th century, or see old postcards advertising its charms, one of the most striking differences between the Market Street of then and now is the presence of sunshine and light. The buildings of yesteryear weren’t nearly tall as they are today, thus making it possible for plants and flowers to grow. In the heart of the Financial District along the corridor today, it is hard to be in direct contact with sunshine ever, the buildings simply shading almost every horizontal and vertical surface.

While it may not be feasible to chop off the top halves of existing buildings along the corridor (although, in these atypical times, why not entertain the idea?), there are umpteen possibilities for plants and flowers that can brighten up and enliven shady situations. A generous parkway along the corridor could in its sunnier spots contain flowering plants, à la Michigan Avenue, while segueing into plants whose foliage can give the effect of brightness within the shadiest parts of the street. Variegated Agave attenuatas and other shade-tolerant chartreuse-leaved plants, for example, and shade-loving yelow-flowering Clivias and Haemanthus too.

 

Ultimately, in our overemphasis on hard infrastructure to shape how we work and live and solve the problems that come with both, we have created spaces and places that perhaps tick off the boxes as far as use—this street is for driving to work on, this intersection is for both pedestrians and cars to cross, etc.—but get the feeling of the place completely wrong (sure, you can walk down that street there, but do you really want to?). We need to shift gears and start realizing that plants and flowers can do more than simply be pretty things to adorn a bouquet but can help us get closer to getting that feeling of places right—so right that you, and many others, actually want to be there.

Photos by the authors.