Urban Planning 101: What do planners look at?

by Jason on June 5, 2012

I know that there are a number of visitors of this site that are not studying or involved in urban planning, so I figured I should show what someone studying planning looks at when they walk down a street. These are small aspects of a place, but one that contributes to how someone feels and navigates through an area. It’s a factor in determining if a place feels safe, comfortable, popular, enclosed, or diminishing. My case study is Japantown, San Jose – specifically because I am unfamiliar with this area and took images of what my gut planning observations were.

Two things to note here: wide sidewalks make it good for pedestrians. However, the unlevel driveways makes it more hazardous for those using assisted mobility devices such as walking canes and wheelchairs.

A place that addresses bikes is more “complete” – accounting for all modes of transportation. Bike parking is present, but there are no bike lanes here though.




Lighting – there is auto-oriented and pedestrian scale lighting in the image. Pedestrian scale lighting helps light the sidewalk, which is often left unaddressed in auto-oriented lighting.

There are also banners and signs marking the place as Japantown, San Jose, local organizations such as the Japantown Business Association, and reminders of upcoming events.




Dense housing near the neighborhood means there is a density of residents to help support the area and make it alive and relevant both as a destination and as a place for daily needs.
On-street parking helps calm traffic. Metered parking is an incentive to take other forms of transportation.

Trees provide enclosure, shelter from the elements, and address urban heat islands – heat from hardscapes such as concrete that add to environmental stress and pedestrian discomfort.

Cafe seating – one of my professors joked that outdoor cafe seating is like the holy grail of neighborhood planning. If you can get outdoor seating and dining on the street, you have some great ingredients in creating walkable destinations.

Outdoor seating, not just for transit, is also another hallmark sign of a comfortable street. The private landscaping and street amenities such as trash cans and ash trays show that this place is well utilized.


Landmarks and public art is important in creating character to a place. This is the Issei Stone of Japantown, San Jose, which is an important cultural symbol of the neighborhood. Landmarks and public art has historic and cultural significance to the area, and makes people wonder what it is.





These are bulb-outs and they help frame the intersections by forcing cars to turn slower and creating a refuge for pedestrians. It also shortens the distance between the roadways for people to cross. The differentiated crosswalk paving further highlights the crossings and allevates the pedestrian priority of the area.

As a disclaimer, all these street assets are not present in all areas, nor should they be. A walkable street has a distinct place in a city and region as an arterial, transit line, or hiking trail. A further and deeper discussion may be entered into how all modes of transportation need to be in harmony – region-wise, not just streetwise. However, that is outside the context of this post. Stepping off soap-box now.

As you can see, there are so many fascinating aspects of a street and neighborhood that add so much to the experience of the street – many of which are purposeful decisions to add. Walking through this area may be very appealing. Driving may be a bit less – however, there is a plethora of visual stimulation in the area, and with all the street modifications, you are driving safer and sharing the road. This is only a quite rundown on what a street and neighborhood may consist of – small things that make ones experience at a place pleasant or not, and one that people may not always be conscious of.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Adrienne June 7, 2012 at 6:02 am

love the pictures. I am curious what you thought about the angled parking compared to horizontal parking, especial near a MF development. Also did you see any bus stops? Where there shelters or just a pole. Also, sometimes you will see a pole with two chairs connected to it, which I think is interesting (there’s an example of such a stop near campus).


Jason June 7, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Hi Adriene, thanks for commenting and for the note on the photos. :)

I think the diagonal parking aids in increasing enclosure for pedestrians, as well as help with ease of parking – especially if parallel parking is an issue. However, I do note that this designates a large portion of the street to parking. In an area that is presumably a place you “park once,” this may be more of an incentive for people to visit. Also, as in other Nihonmachi (Japantown in SF, and Little Tokyo in LA), the population that actually lives in that area are often older adults, who may find this sort of parking easier. In this community, I can see the benefits of diagonal parking – looking at the aims of the neighborhood and the present residents living around the area.

I am not completely sure if I saw bus stops, though there were a number of buses (both decorated and not) along the street. There are certain pockets that provide space for a bus stop, but the small strip of Japantown itself is more laced with on-street parking.

I’m not sure where the poles and chairs are in the images…


Anthony Mendiola June 7, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Great blog!

This should be called what Urban Designers see…
(because the average “planner” would see zoning violations, or something unimaginative.)
Well, maybe I am being a bit harsh!


Jason June 7, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Anthony – thank you!

Hahaha, I would like to say that I am able to look in terms of a planner and designer, but don’t think I didn’t note the neighborhood commercial and multi-family housing in my walk! Your site is great as well.

Unfortunately, I have never experienced San Diego other than in a car… what are some of the biggest obstacles to sustainable transportation there? There’s just something about Southern California and transit that isn’t meshing (I am an LA Native).

Also, I moved your comment to this page away from the About page. Just wanted to inform you. :)


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