In my opinion, good city buildings touch each other and define the street. They don’t have to be glamorous to make good urban fabric. When building work together, they create good spaces for people to enjoy.
I’ll give two quick examples of clearly defined streets. These two streets are near my apartment in Dublin. Unfortunately, they are both designed for cars–not people. Nevertheless, the buildings work together to define space. On Parnell Street, the buildings support a good mix of uses and are close enough together to provide the density of population needed to support ground-floor retail. Residential density is lower a few blocks away, on North King, and ground-floor business are fledgling.
Simply put, a proper mix of residential and office space is necessary to support ground floor restaurants and retail. By providing residential as well as working space, mixed-use districts are active throughout the day. Businesses can draw customers morning, noon, and night.
Having the right mix in your district ensures you’ll be able to get the services you need without getting in a car. (Oh, that we’d build this way in the States! Walkability is so rare in cities back home.)
I was reminded of all this last Thursday, when I travelled to the Fulbright office in Ballsbridge to help interview Fulbright applicants. It’s in the outskirts of Dublin. Although this is a suburban neighborhood, it is still dense by US standards. Notice that there’s more space between buildings in Ballsbridge than in Dublin city center, but that there’s still a good mix of uses/services. Nevertheless, some buildings contribute much more to the life of the street than others!