Ambiance is an aspect of planning that I came across while reading through Metuchen’s design standards for new development. The design was for an open space that would function as an urban park. Among the suggested features were “lighting which creates a warm and inviting ambiance, “preservation of the existing mature trees,” and “a strong sense of enclosure created by new buildings fronting toward the space on two sides.” These details stood out because they so simply addressed a thing that previously seemed to me to be a very mysterious aspect of design-how does one design the atmosphere of a place? Is it as simple as the choice of streetlamp and building orientation? Thinking about this made me wonder if I could just as easily sum up the character of a place, as well as figure out what features of the built environment most heavily influence its atmosphere.


A favorite place on campus undoubtedly is Voorhees Mall. Its design has two things in common with Metuchen’s above-mentioned park. First are the old trees that envelop the mall. Second are the buildings that face inwards, creating an enclosed space that also feels open and spacious. I’d also suggest that the size and architecture of the buildings is important. The buildings’ heights and flat fronts look like great, sturdy walls. The age of the buildings and trees implies that anything done within the square becomes a part of its history, like one is participating in some age-old tradition. I don’t think it’s an accident that this landscape is common among college campuses. Because of its combination of comfortable enclosure and tradition, it is the quintessential scholarly environment.

But undoubtedly there’s more to the way a city makes us feel than the architecture. This is an excerpt from an article called “The atmospheric ‘skin’ of the city,” that attempts to explain how our impressions of a city are formed. “In the same way as the scent of a rose supervenes on the materiality of the flower, the atmosphere of a city supervenes on urban materiality, that is due to an enormous constellation of factors: geographical-climatic situation, historical and socio-economical condition, architectural-infrastructural quality, value expressiveness, language, nutrition and so forth. As a chaotic multiplicity distinguished by an internally diffuse significance, and as such more describable than rigorously and conceptually definable, the city possesses a powerful atmospheric charge, often mnestically crystallised or synthesised, in Benjamin’s words, as “images of thought”. It possesses, we could say, its own emotional and polysensorial ‘skin’…”