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 theĀ 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.