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Island Press
Community Character: Principles for Design and Planning / Edition 2

Community Character: Principles for Design and Planning / Edition 2

by Lane H. Kendig, Bret C. Keast


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597266956
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 07/13/2010
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lane Kendig is the founder and former president of Kendig Keast Collaborative, a planning consulting firm with offices in Chicago, Houston, Wisconsin, and Colorado. He has been practicing and writing about the relationship between community design planning and regulatory tools for more than forty years. He is the author of Performance Zoning and Too Big, Boring, or Ugly: Planning and Design Tools to Combat Monotony, the Too-big House, and Teardowns and numerous articles.

Bret C. Keast, AICP serves as President of Kendig Keast, succeeding Lane H. Kendig upon his retirement. Bret’s practice includes 20 years of experience with a Council of Governments and Metropolitan Planning Organization, a rapidly growing suburban municipality, and an international multi-disciplinary firm.

Read an Excerpt

Community Character

Principles for Design and Planning

By Lane H. Kendig, Bret C. Keast


Copyright © 2010 Lane H. Kendig
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-970-4


The Designer's Lexicon

Planning for community character requires that architects, planners, urban designers, policymakers, and citizens clearly communicate their goals. Planners must then write plans and ordinances to enable those goals to be met. Unfortunately, many of these groups seem to speak different languages. There are a considerable number of terms used by architects and urban designers that are not commonly used by citizens, elected officials, and planners. Likewise, planners tend to use a number of terms typically found only in zoning ordinances.

To help facilitate the discussion about community character goals, this chapter introduces a design and planning lexicon. A great number of the urban design and architecture terms have been in the literature for decades. This is true of some of the planning and landscape terms as well. In developing community character for suburban and rural areas, I have developed additional terms over the past thirty years.

This chapter is organized by topical areas, so terms are grouped by their relation to one another rather than alphabetically. It begins with three terms that describe major classes of character, and then explores space, mass, and other elements of which they are made. Another set of terms addresses organizing buildings or spaces. The chapter concludes with landscape terms, which address the physical environment, along with planning and zoning terms.

There are a number of terms that describe aspects of communities and human settlements. Three descriptive ways of relating to space are discussed here—architectural, garden, and landscape—which connect to how the three classes of character (urban, sub-urban, and rural) are seen.


Architectural Space

This describes outdoor space that is enclosed by man-made structures to house businesses or families (see figure 1-1). Buildings and their layout define architectural space. The design of the space itself is architectural. Spaces are paved and greenery is limited to small planters or tiny yards. In general, impervious surfaces, buildings, roads, plazas, and parking occupy nearly all the land in architectural spaces.


The term "garden-like" refers to a space in which landscape elements provide a setting for the building (see discussion of negative space, below). The space is green and pervious rather than paved (see figure 1-2). Garden-like is intended to represent the presence of vegetative mass that is equal to or greater than the building mass, and whose height is generally greater than that of the buildings. Its green nature and softer shapes directly contrast with the hard-edged architectural environment.


The term "landscape" is intended to evoke a natural or agricultural environment that extends to the horizon (see figure 1-3). A landscape requires that the built environment be in the background and trivial. Landscape planning follows the same rules as landscape painting in that buildings and communities are diminished to background elements or hidden from view. A landscape exists when one can see to the horizon in all directions without buildings breaking the horizon line (see the section on infinite space, below). Their other characteristic is that as people or cars move through them, landscapes seem to flow or expand as the horizon changes with movement.


Buildings, stands of vegetation, and landforms are all volumes that occupy and fill space; visually, they appear as solids. Whether they are truly solids (as is the case with a large boulder), hollow (as a structure containing rooms), or spongy (as a dense stand of vegetation with a visual shell of leaves) is immaterial. It is the visual characteristic that is important. Solids are visual elements that are shown on plans. They can also be walls that are two-dimensional, having little volume. Solids may contain human activity within them, may contain a space, or may serve only as a visual barrier. Mass can also be considered positive volume that occupies space visually.


In planning communities, space means exterior space, open to the sky. Architects use this concept of space, but they also use the term to refer to interior spaces (rooms). Space may be pervasive, as it is at sea, where it is unlimited to the horizon. At the other end of the spectrum it can be a tightly contained void or area between surrounding walls or buildings. For this reason different types of space are defined.

Positive space (see figure 1-4) is exterior space enclosed by buildings or walls (basically an outdoor room). Positive space is sometimes referred to as centripetal—that is, the space pulls or focuses activities inward. The degree of enclosure is very important for a positive space. Failure to provide enclosure weakens the space. Enclosure, which contains and focuses activity, is a key element in urban design and is a measurable concept (see the section on distance/height, or D/H, ratio, page 31). It is also appropriate, in most cases, to consider positive space as architectural space since it is inseparable from its surrounding buildings and their architecture.

Negative space is space that surrounds a building, as in figure 1-5. The space is considered centrifugal—it radiates out from the building, and the building is buffered by the space. Instead of the building enclosing space, space surrounds and highlights the building. Negative spaces, as the term is used here, may be highly designed, organized, and architectural. As seen in figure 1-5, negative space is often surrounded by buildings, which focuses attention on the central building.

Borrowed space is a subset of negative space. Borrowed space "expands" the views from inside a building by creating either outdoor rooms or views of open space. It is not focusing attention on the building. The Japanese brought this concept to a high art form in designing small gardens to expand rooms (see figure 1-6). In planning, space is borrowed by the development, cluster, or community, not just a room in a house. Borrowed space may be a garden, a larger yard, or common open space. It can also be temporary, such as vacant land adjoining a development that can later be developed, thereby changing the character of an area.

Infinite space, or landscape, is where the space extends to the horizon.

Buildings are a background element or hidden completely (see figure 1-7) and are never the center, as with negative space. The horizon represents the boundary of the space.



A wall is a mass that is a two-dimensional plane rather than a three-dimensional volume. Walls can be freestanding, connected, or an extension of a building. Walls may be used to divide a space into multiple spaces. In architectural design, the term is used for interior partitions that enclose rooms. Dense plantings of vegetation can also serve as walls (e.g., the New Zealand hedge in figure 1-8).


Screens are partly transparent walls, such as a wrought iron fence. A row of trees can serve as a screen, but it is unlikely to form a wall since you can see in between them (see the street trees in figure 1-9). Screens serve much the same function that walls do in that they can be used to define spaces. The difference is that they do not necessarily fully enclose, as there is usually some visibility through them. Depending on the screen's opacity, it will provide different levels of enclosure (a hedge versus a tree row, for example). The speed of the viewer also affects the apparent degree of opacity. A row of trees on either side of a road operates as an effective screen for passengers in a car, but not for a pedestrian (see figure 1-10).

Floor or Ground Plane

The ground plane—natural or man-made—serves as the floor for all types of environments. Just as in a building, the treatment of the ground plane is an important design element. It can be designed to move traffic, provide space for activities, or preserve resources. The texture of the ground plane is very important (see page 18). The treatment of the floor can direct people or views, make distinctions between spaces, or add interest (both visual and tactile).


All spaces have a ceiling plane, whether it is natural sky, a vegetative canopy, or man-made, such as a constructed roof or ceiling. In architecture the ceiling is a design element similar to the ground or floor. The sky is the ceiling plane for planning, and its juncture with buildings, trees, or the horizon is important to design.


Urban planner and architect Edmund Bacon talks about buildings meeting the skyline—a visual line created by the outline of buildings against the backdrop of the sky (see figure 1-11)—as an important urban design element.


The horizon is nature's equivalent of the skyline. The horizon may be at eye level and created by the curvature of the earth, as at the seashore (see figure 1-12) or in open landscapes. A horizon created solely by the curvature of the earth is about 2.9 miles distant for a person standing on the ground, and can be called the "natural horizon." Topography and the position of the viewer change the distance to the horizon.

A borrowed horizon is when mountains or hills can be seen rising above the natural horizon. The Rocky Mountains, for example, can be seen from as far away as fifty miles, leaving invisible miles of land between the mountains and the point where the earth's curvature would place the horizon. Principally a phenomenon of mountain regions (see figure 1-13), it enables the viewer to borrow a very large distant object that is located beyond the natural horizon.

An artificial horizon is the false horizon formed by vegetation that blocks the view to the natural horizon. The artificial horizon can serve like a wall and create small spaces (see figure 1-14). Like a wall, it can be used to hide what is behind it.


The roof or ceiling encloses a space and is a built element of the environment. For the most part this is important only in architecture, but it is a term used by planners when discussing enclosed pedestrian spaces such as arcades or malls.


The branches and leaves of trees form a type of roof (see figure 1-15). While the sky may remain visible above the trees, the sheltering of streets, spaces, or yards by trees is somewhat similar to a roof. Its ability to rise above buildings and alter scale makes it a very important design element.


There are a number of types of scale, all of which relate to size. Community scale deals with a continuum of scale. Relative scale is a comparative measure of building or space. Human scale relates buildings and spaces to the human, while social scale relates these elements to functions and communication.

Community Scale

Discussed in more detail in chapter 2, this is a measure that distinguishes the scale of a community, from the smallest (the hamlet) to the largest (metropolitan areas). While scale can be expanded to the region or megalopolis, planning is largely absent at these sizes. Population or dwelling units are used to measure community scale.

Relative Scale

Relative scale can simply compare the scale of two buildings in height, volume, or even human-scale units. A new building that would be twenty or more times larger than those already in the neighborhood would be out of scale with its surroundings (see figure 1-16). The term can also be used to compare spaces in terms of area or volume. This is a simple mathematical measure, using height, volume, or the human-scale unit. An important scale relationship is that between spaces and the surrounding buildings (see the section on D/H ratio, page 31).

Human Scale

This term relates to the scale at which a building, room, or space should be created for human use. Rooms and spaces that do not fit the desired activity will be uncomfortable. A stair whose risers or treads are too high or too broad is difficult to climb. Figure 1-17 updates the Leonardo da Vinci drawing to provide a human-scale unit: a six-foot square, ten feet high (or 360 cubic feet). The ten-foot height makes the measure more compatible with zoning standards (ten feet is a common floor-to-floor height in residential buildings). This can be used as a volume measure or, in one or two dimensions, to provide a constant scale. The Japanese, in their traditional architecture, referred to rooms by the number of tatami mats that were used in the modular flooring system.

Social Scale

Spaces have been classified as intimate, personal (or informal), social, and public. But there are other scales that should be added in order to have a system that works from urban to rural character. Five levels will be used here—intimate, informal, formal, event, and infinite. These spaces increase in size and are related to the types of activities that are appropriate.

Intimate scale: Small spaces are intimate. In such a space, individuals are in contact with all their senses and have little room to maneuver to increase their distance. Their faces may be only inches apart.

Informal scale is sized for the comfort of a gathering of friends. People can stand or sit so they can concentrate on the faces of those with whom they are speaking. There is sufficient room for people to move around to talk to different groups within the space.

At the formal scale, there may be a key center of attention, or it may simply be a large gathering. With a key focus, a separation between the gathering and the center of attraction is required. For large gatherings there is no one focus, but the space must be large as people need to be able to form many small groups and move around to different groups. Individuals can be recognized at a distance, though facial expressions and details are lost and conversation is only possible when people break into smaller groups.

Event scale: Events involve very large groups and spaces. These are likely to be facilities for a concert or sporting event. The size of these spaces is such that individual people may be seen, but not recognized, across the space.

Infinite scale: The distances are so great at this scale that people and even vehicles may not be seen until they approach. At this scale even a community with many buildings is seen only in the background.


Quality is very important in community design. Qualitative terms may indicate a "good" or "bad" aspect of the building or space. In other cases they may be neutral terms describing a characteristic, such as color or texture. Some, like scale, define a social quality of the space. In many cases, there is a continuum involved. The designer needs to be able to use these elements in a knowledgeable manner.


Contrast—the opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors—is a desirable feature in human environments and is required in order to maintain interest. A contrast continuum exists, ranging from no contrast to extreme contrast. Unlike some continua, the good is in the middle, with the extremes generally considered undesirable. The states along this continuum are monotony, harmony, and chaos. It can be applied to whole communities or selected elements, homes, colors, heights, textures, or developments.

Monotony is an absence or near absence of contrast. While such an environment has unity, its lack of interest makes it boring or unmemorable. When applied to a neighborhood of homes, individual units lose any sense of identity, and it is difficult to maintain orientation because there are no changes in the environment (see figure 1-18).

Chaos results from too much contrast, and is the opposite extreme of monotony. When every element of the environment is competing for attention, it overwhelms the senses. Strip commercial areas are often chaotic. The corporate architecture, signs, and jumble of building types and styles confuse and clash (see figure 1-19). These strips are not found to be attractive, largely because of this sense of chaos. While chaos is considered to be undesirable, there are exceptions. In Las Vegas or New York's Times Square, chaos is intentional: bright, gaudy, lighted signs obscure the buildings but create a sense of activity and excitement.

Harmony is in the middle of the contrast scale and is the most desirable. It represents a balanced degree of contrast, with unifying elements sufficient to hold visual interest while not being so dramatic as to become unbalanced (see figure 1-20). Note that massing, roofs, and general architecture can achieve this without a rigid style. Unity might also be used to describe this middle ground. Thomas Thiis-Evensen uses the term "continuity" to address the same general concept.

Dominance is an interesting term within the contrast vocabulary. Contrast of a substantial degree may be deliberately used to convey a hierarchy or level of importance. A contrasting element is singled out as being dominant. The medieval cathedral contrasted in height, scale, and style from the rest of the community, visually identifying the dominant social force. Figure 1-21 shows how the height of a steeple gives emphasis to a church in Savannah, Georgia. Government buildings often have a similar dominance due to their scale, height, or architectural features. Dominance should only be planned for a building or space that is particularly important to the community.


Excerpted from Community Character by Lane H. Kendig, Bret C. Keast. Copyright © 2010 Lane H. Kendig. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


About Island Press,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
INTRODUCTION - Why Should We Care About Community Character?,
CHAPTER 1 - The Designer's Lexicon,
CHAPTER 2 - Community State, Context, and Scale,
CHAPTER 3 - Community Character Classes and Types,
CHAPTER 4 - Community and Regional Forms,
CHAPTER 5 - Community Character Measurement,
CHAPTER 6 - Conclusion,
Island Press | Board of Directors,

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