Getting a clear picture on façade transparency

Communities can create welcoming places by setting clear transparency standards that are easy to understand.

Placemaking focuses on creating places where people can gather and interact. Numerous urban design elements have an impact on the quality of place and how welcoming it is to people. One of the most important is transparency. Transparency refers to the degree to which people can see what lies beyond the edge of the street or public space. The key to this is being able to perceive human activity beyond the edge. The physical elements that contribute to transparency include such things as windows and doors, walls and fencing, mid-block openings and landscaping. These elements all shape the interaction between the public space and the semi-private space of buildings.

A typical example of transparency is a large shop front window that allows pedestrians to see into the store. Another example of transparency is outdoor seating at a café that extends the human activity through the front wall of the café. People perceive the possibility of human activity inside the café based on the seating outside, thus extending the activity through the façade and creating transparency even if there are no large windows or doors.

One way communities can increase transparency is by setting transparency standards in their regulations. Façade transparency requirements often set broad ranges of required visual transparency. These standards focus on the interaction of the building with the street and are typically based on form and character. For a typical commercial district, 60 to 90 percent of the first floor should consist of windows and doors with clear sight lines into the structure.

To create walkable mixed-use neighborhoods these areas should have between 50 and 90 percent transparency on the front façade. This creates a sense of eyes on the street and perception of human activity. If blank walls or garages and parking front the street in these areas, the transparency is lost. In more residential areas the ratios can drop lower. In addition, upper stories can have 20 to 30 percent lower transparency. Merely having transparency ratios is not enough; reflective glass or arcades that set windows back impact perception of human activity. Large opaque signage in windows is also a barrier.

Michigan State University Extension offers training and technical assistance to communities that are in interested in placemaking and urban coding. For more information on placemaking visit or contact a Land Use Educator for more information on these programs. 

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