Serial Vision: The Dynamic Downtown

Recently, I was walking through Downtown Jackson, a California Gold Rush town east of Stockton, when I was reminded of an urban design concept called serial vision.

English architect and urban designer Gordon Cullen developed the term serial vision to describe what a pedestrian experiences when moving through a built environment. The pedestrian’s view continually changes when following a curving pathway, entering a courtyard, or turning a corner. The changing view provides a sense of discovery and drama. In contrast, Cullen writes, “A long straight road has little impact because the initial view is soon digested and becomes monotonous.” (Cullen 1961, p. 11)

Cullen believed that a designer’s role is to manage elements of the built environment in ways that provide an emotional impact. One way is to shape the relationship between the two parts of the visual experience: the existing view and the emerging view. In separating the existing from the emerging view, Cullen captures the feelings associated with the experience of the current viewpoint and the anticipation of the next viewpoint.

This series of photographs of Main Street in Downtown Jackson provides an example of the relationship between the existing view and the emerging view:

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The existing view shows an environment that, while typical of downtowns in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, is unlike urban areas in most other parts of California. The historic buildings and intimate street width make Downtown Jackson a living history museum. In this current view, a visitor can imagine how Main Street appeared in the years following the Gold Rush. Many buildings in Downtown Jackson date to the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. The first floor of the building on the left, the stucco Sanguinetti Building, is over 140 years old and has a cantilevered second story with an enclosed wood balcony supported by iron brackets. The street is narrow – parking on the right side of the street requires automobiles to carefully negotiate with oncoming traffic.

Following Cullen’s serial vision framework, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the streetscape in the first image is not what we see, but what we anticipate seeing as we move down the street – the emerging view. Main Street curves slightly to the left (east), which obscures the view of approaching buildings and streetscape. The curiosity about the unknown around the bend provides the anticipation and drama that Cullen described. As the pedestrian moves forward, he or she is able to slowly see more of the street and buildings, including the recently renovated landmark National Hotel at the end of Main Street, that contribute to the strong sense of history in Downtown Jackson.

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The lesson of serial vision is that we must think about downtowns as dynamic places. Static planning and design tools such as overhead plan views, architectural renderings, building elevations, and visual simulations are necessary, but such static planning tools obscure how places are really experienced – as pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, or passengers who are constantly moving through the environment. Recognizing the role of serial vision in the user experience of a downtown can stimulate thinking about how plans and designs can help build anticipation, create drama, and invoke feeling.

Jackson’s Main Street has elements that create a dynamic experience – the gradual curve of the street and a prominent building where the street ends – that cannot necessarily be replicated elsewhere. However, Downtown Jackson provides lessons that can be applied to downtowns with a straight commercial street. Architectural elements (such as the cantilevered second stories in Jackson), canopy and projecting signs, trees, intersecting streets, storefronts, recessed entries and courtyards can contribute to a changing view. Cities can target prominent locations for important civic and private buildings, plazas, and public art. Remembering these urban design elements during downtown planning activities will provide residents and visitors with a positive experience and give them a reason for anticipating their next visit.


Cullen, Gordon. 1961. The Concise Townscape. New York: Reinhold.



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