Lively Streets: Exploring the relationship between built environment and social behavior

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Streets constitute a significant part of open public space and are the most important symbols of the public realm. Streets that cater to the functional, social, and leisure needs of people have been positively associated with economic growth, physical health of people, and a sense of community. Increasingly, scholars suggest thinking of the street as a social space rather than just a channel for movement. Despite such suggestions, few studies have addressed the relationships between social behavior and the environmental quality of the street. Moreover, the studies that have, tend to separate the study of physical features from land uses, and hence do not deal with the interrelationships between behavioral patterns and the physical features of the street, and its sociability.

This dissertation was an empirical examination of behavioral responses, perceptions, and attitudes of people to the physical characteristics, use, and management of the neighborhood commercial street in two cities and one town in the Boston metropolitan area. It used methods based in environment-behavior sciences involving extensive observations of these streets over eight months, and interviews with people using these streets to understand their behaviors and perceptions.

The biggest competitive advantage of neighborhood commercial streets is their ability to support social interaction. The findings reveal that people were equally concerned with the social and physical dimensions of the street. The presence of community places and the street's landuse and physical character determined the use of the street. People preferred settings that had stores that were community-gathering places, which held special collective meanings for the people of the neighborhood and were thus destinations to meet friends and to see other people and activities; that had a variety of stores on the block, particularly those that served daily shopping needs; that had unique independently operated stores with friendly service, a distinctive character and ambience, and personalized shop-windows and entrances; that were pedestrian-friendly with ample sidewalk space with seating and other street furniture, and shade and shelter; and that had buildings with permeable and articulated street facades providing sheltered small-scale spaces.