1 dot = 1 open business

Time is essential to our experience of cities. And yet, time is remarkably under-represented in the theory and practice of urban design. What can we learn about cities (in this case, Boston) from studying how time changes them?

Much of that changing character comes down to when businesses are open. Business hours give us a window into larger issues of activity - where can we expect to find people? What kind of traffic should we expect? As businesses open and close, other kinds of activity follow.

yellow dots = businesses opening at this time


Downtown businesses open earlier to serve the morning commute of office workers.


Shops in Back Bay and Harvard Square start to open around 10am.


The North End, a traditionally Italian neighborhood with lots of tourism-focused businesses, sees an uptick of businesses opening around noon.

Open after Midnight

If you want to stay out late, these are the neighborhoods to be. Allston and Harvard Square for the younger crowd, and Fenway for the sports fans.

The skyline of a city tells you where people are at their peak, but rarely gives a sense of how people are using the city throughout the day. The tallest parts of the Boston often have far fewer people on the street than low-rise neighborhoods like the South End, Allston, or Mission Hill.

Urban design ideas like the "high spine", a line of the Boston's tallest buildings that runs along Boylston street, represents an architectural ideal of where density and commercial activity should occur in Boston. But this ideal assumes that height and built intensity go hand in hand with street life and activity. Visualizing the city's buildings by how many businesses are open highlights this issue: form may follow function, but activity doesn't always follow form.

If we visualized building height dynamically by open businesses:

Building height defined statically by form:

Another way to understand how business hours affect the city is by comparing neighborhoods over the course of a typical week.

Viewing business hours by day of the week reveals the quiet of Downtown on a Sunday, or the late start of Back Bay. Patterns start to emerge: Sundays are quiet citywide, except in Fenway (baseball games) or the North End (those Italian lunches). Each neighborhood has a specific rhythm - the question is why?

What time is your neighborhood?

Many businesses shift their hours on Monday to balance out time spent working through the weekend. Particularly around noon, there's a greater spread compared to the rest of the week.
Tuesday starts the mid-week pattern of greater consistency across neighborhoods.
Wednesday has the most consistency across neighborhoods. At noon, almost all neighborhoods hit their peak of around 90% open businesses.
Patterns start to change on Friday. Some neighborhoods show businesses closing early as they start the weekend, while others show a slower rate of closing. This may be due to nightlife and other evening activities.
Saturdays mark a major shift - many places close for the weekend (which accounts for the messier lines). For those that do open, their hours tend to cluster in the afternoon and evening.
Predictably, Sundays show the least businesses open. Sunday businesses also open later than other days of the week across most neighborhoods.

Clearly the mix of businesses influences a neighborhood's rhythm.

Retail tends to open later, while offices open promptly at 9:00am. Fitness studios and grocery stores will push a neighborhood's business hours towards the early side, while bars are (unsurprisingly) late to open.

It's also important to look at the spread of each business type. Grocery stores and retail vary quite a lot in their individual opening and closing hours, whereas nightlife has tighter hours. The level of spread combines with the overall mix of neighborhoods to define the neighborhood's rhythm. This combination of location and business type creates the variation we see throughout the city. Even at the scale of a city block, the right mix of businesses can brighten otherwise quiet neighborhoods.

How does business type affect hours?

The intensity of each color shows the number of businesses opening or closing at a given time. Orange areaa show how many businesses are opening, and Blue represents when businesses are closing.

Right on time

Certain types of businesses tend to open and close at tightly defined time. Offices tend to open right at 9:00am and close promptly at 6:00p. Recreation, which includes fitness centers, open early to accomodate the pre-work crowd.

Twin Peaks

Restaurants and Bars have a unique pattern, with two peaks for opening times: 11:30am for lunch focused businesses, and 5pm for dinner service and bars.

Wide Open

In contrast to offices, medical sector, grocery stores, and retail vary substantially. Retail has the largest spread of opening times, with the majority of stores evenly distributed between 8:00am to 11:00am.

Weekends Only

Almost all business types keep different hours on the weekends. Grocery stores are the exception, with the same wide spread throughout the week.

Click "next" to explore

So what does it look like to design with time?

We can create special districts that encourage flexible uses and longer business hours.

For decades, cities have regulated physical characteristics like height, setbacks, and street dimensions with special overlay zones. These zones create incentives to encourage development, set limits against excessive density, or simply set funding aside for specific needs. “Extended Hours” overlay zones would work similarly, providing special attention to areas of the city where evenings, weekends, or other times require extra effort to maintain active use and encourage investment.

We can use the public realm to fill in the gaps from brick and mortar activities.

Policy changes like overlay districts are a longer-term strategy, but there are things that can be done quickly to activate districts. We can use the public realm itself as a place where activity is generated through street markets and other events. During the day, Temple Street is a quiet and unassuming Hong Kong street, but every evening it is transformed into one of the main shopping corridors in the city. Some of this shopping happens in the buildings, but much of it is through stalls and other temporary structures set up in the late afternoon and taken down at midnight.

This pop-up approach to retail could be replicated in other cities where the mix of brick and mortar businesses don't contribute to street life at certain times of the day or week.

Temple Street, Hong Kong

We can rethink how space, particularly ground floors, is occupied over the course of the day and week.

Start-ups like Spacious are repurposing restaurants for co-working during the day, then restoring them to restaurants for dinner service. Retail and restaurant mashups are growing, with the potential for differentiated hours of operation. These kinds of hybrid ground floor spaces carry with them the opportunity for complementary arrangements in which businesses can focus on the hours of operation that benefit their services, while making room for different businesses during off hours. This would allow a single storefront to generate activity throughout the day and week, rather than solely during a single business operation.

Taken together, these strategies show how a better understanding of business hours can inform how we design our cities. The next wave of urban design and city-building in American cities will be less about broad strokes issues like mixed-use development or density, and more about how nuances like business hours can make cities more livable and prosperous.

How does my block compare?

Move the circle to test the average open and closing times around Boston.