Redevelopment Strategies: Visual Imprinting

July 9, 2009 8 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In our continuing discussion on redevelopment strategies, We take a look at Visual Imprinting and its profound effect on both any space and its end users. From Rooms to Streets to Cities, what we see around us in the physical environment forms a visceral expectation that is often a self fulfilling prophecy.



Learning to use visual imprinting as part of a community strategy for redevelopment is one of the easiest and least expensive tools at the disposal of any group of people, be they developers, residents or simply like minded enthusiasts.

Visual Imprinting is the basis for some of the more effective tools of community health and forms some of the reasoning behind CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) and the Broken Tooth Syndrome.

Visual Imprinting is the practice of using visual markers to set perceptions of a neighborhood and to attract (or discourage) various kinds of activities and end users.

This is a simple and very powerful tool, one that takes very little in the way of financial investment.

Human beings are social creatures.  We are so hard wired to react to other humans that we see faces in flour burritos or in cloud formations.  The single most important visual marker that a neighborhood, district or area can have involves human beings interacting with the environment.

Take a moment and look at the following photos.

With each one, pretend you are passing through a neighborhood for the first time.  Consider what opinion you would have of the area if this is what you saw.

Would you buy a house there?
Would you feel comfortable walking around alone?
Would you have fun going there with a group?
Would you bring kids or leave them at home?
Would you feel safe?  Unsafe?  Safe enough?
Would you stop to shop there?


How would you characterize the neighborhood that each of these is depicting in one word?

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You probably drew some very powerful conclusions about the areas above when you looked through them.

Now ask yourself.  Did you really pay that much attention to the buildings, or the sidewalks or the streets?  Or did you notice the cute little girl with the Hoola Hoop, the scary (or cool) looking tattoos on the big guys, and all those guys running across that lawn?

We do see all of those things like buildings and sidewalks, but what we really notice is other people and the activities that they are engaging in.

If you have ever gone to a great restaurant or club opening, remember how exciting it seemed?

Did you ever go back to the same location and it just wasn't as cool/dynamic/beautiful or exciting the second time?

That/s because what was attractive about the event was the other humans.  Without all those people making a critical mass, the physical environment itself seems lessened.

But if you took the same huge crowd and stuffed them into an airplane hanger, it would seem just as exciting while all the people were there.

So the question is this:  How do you take these basic ideas and turn them into an imprinting redevelopment strategy.

By programming activities in the highly visible corridors of traffic that draw and create the type of activity that one would like to see happen there.

Events like shrimp and barbecue festivals draw thousands of people.

When you have lots of crowds on a street, it seems safer and more enjoyable.

Events and festivals are the most obvious and common form of development imprinting.  Its an old trick for tourist minded Floridians.

But there are hundreds of more subtle ways to create perception change through visual imprinting.  They are called Small Event Imprinting.

Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the walls.  The appearance of being fun transformed a laborious chore into a tourist attraction.

Consider what the visual effect of having a little league baseball game on your street is.

Or a few kids playing soccer in an open field.

What does it say about an area if there are people having a picnic in an open lot or field?

What message does a huge group of women of all ages jogging or power walking through a neighborhood send?

What subtle changes do you feel when you see small pieces of public art?  Bake sales?  Lemonade stands?

What assumptions about the safety of a neighborhood would you make if you drove down Main Street and saw huge groups of Senior Citizens playing croquet?

Take it even smaller.   What do you assume about a neighborhood that has big banners on the streets announcing an arts festival?

What if the same neighborhood had huge banners warning criminals about increased police patrols and neighborhood watch programs?

What about a Micro Event, like two friends simply hanging out on a sidewalk with a family pet?

Or College students laying out on recliners in their front yards?

Consider the impact on public perception for a neighborhood that employed festivals, small events, micro events, public art and marketing banners on a consistent basis.

Remember that like calls to like. As humans we are attracted to people who are interested in the same things we are interested in.  When we consistently see family activities, we will bring our family.

When we consistently see nightlife and party events, we will bring our peers, wives and friends, and leave the kids at home.

This is called Imprinting as a Development Strategy.  There are a million ways to achieve the effect and a nearly infinite variety of outcomes.

What are the necessary elements of Imprinting?

A clearly defined area within which imprinting will be targeted.  Try and find the highest traffic street in the neighborhood.  Especially for pass through traffic.   Imprinting works best on people who have no direct experience with the area.  It is designed to make those people get out of their vehicles in the district for the first time and give it a chance.  So, as many non area residents that pass through the imprinting district, the better.

A clearly defined feel of the end users and the messaging:  Who are you trying to attract?  What kind of message are you trying to send?

A realistic sense of the months it takes to change perception.  A successful imprinting program can take up to 24 months to work.

Don't get too grandiose.  Stick to basic ideas like "safety", "fun", "youth", "grownups",  "community".  Try to avoid anything so specific that you might as well email all the people in the city who go to that club personally.

Consensus within the community and active help and participation from the merchants and residents.

An active neighborhood association.  You will need them to help program activities for the neighborhood in the targeted areas.

Willing volunteers for micro events.

A little imagination.

A careful review that your imprinting project isnt being used for racist, sexist, or other bigoted ends.

A sense of fun!


Imprinting is powerful and subtle.  With a little consensus and simply asking people to go about their normal lives, but doing it in a specific area, and scheduling a few events for highest visibility, the preconceptions of an area can be changed dramatically.

(Bonus Points if you can correctly identify the photos from above that are taken in Jacksonville Florida)

Article By Stephen Dare.