In my previous post, I explained why I believe that midwestern cities need to raise their overall density. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to develop mixed use neighborhoods of moderately high density. I am not advocating that density be increased everywhere and in my next post I intend to talk about identifying where the most logical places for increased density are likely to be.
I’m also not advocating for areas of extreme density -- for example, an area where most of the buildings are 20 stories or taller. If that happens, it isn’t necessarily a disaster, but given that land values in most midwestern cities are relatively low I generally don’t think it is a wise use of resources and I don’t think it does much to enhance the character of the city or the well-being of the people occupying the building. I certainly would be reluctant to provide any public financial assistance to “skyscraper” types of projects.
And finally, I am not advocating for high density, single purpose districts. Whether it is a suburban office park or a downtown dominated by financial institutions and government buildings, I think it should be clear by now that single purpose districts produce a boring, sterile environment that in the long run is not as productive or adaptable as it should be. While they may be efficient in the short term, when demand or societal needs change these types of developments have a difficult time reinventing themselves to stay economically relevant. How many huge shopping malls are vacant or struggling now that the department stores that were their “anchors” are out of favor with shoppers and going bankrupt one after another?
So now let me pivot from what shouldn’t be done and discuss what I think should be done. One of the reasons there aren’t more successful mixed use districts is that they are difficult to do. There are lots of design details that need attention and there is an enormous amount of coordination that needs to take place. Consequently, it is difficult for the private sector to build a good mixed use district without a strong, long-term partnership with the local municipality. This is often difficult for both the public and private sectors to accept. The private sector hates the messy and unpredictable nature of the democratic decision-making process and often doesn’t trust that the input from the public sector is in their best interests. The public sector is often uncomfortable with the reality that nothing will get built unless nearly everyone on the private side is making a profit from the end result, and may not understand that there are limits to how much largesse can be included in a development deal. Both sides need to get outside of their comfort zone to make it work.
The remainder of this post is going to contain design recommendations that I have grouped into three general categories. I am not going to get into the details of who should be responsible for fulfilling each recommendation -- that is the “partnership” piece that will vary from situation to situation. In reality, the balance and participation in the partnership will often change over time. At some points, the city will need to be the dominant player and at other times that will shift to the private sector. My point is that someone needs to be paying attention to the issues discussed below.
Planning for any neighborhood or district should start with the public spaces that are in between the buildings, not the buildings themselves. The relatively recent zoning innovation known as Form Based Codes has emphasized this approach and I think it makes a great deal of sense. Historically, streets were treated in a very perfunctory and systematic manner -- a couple of standard street designs would be applied across entire cities without much thought about the unique needs of different neighborhoods. While some consistency is needed, there is probably just as much about a street that should be localized as there is that needs city-wide consistency. Allowing the character of a street to be localized is a significant mental shift for most cities.
A second important shift is to start thinking of streetscape design primarily from the point of view of a pedestrian. For the past 50 years, streetscape design was focused on the perspective of the driver or passenger in a moving vehicle. But the goal of a good moderate-density, mixed-use district should be to increase the amount people can do without getting in a car, and that requires placing the needs of the pedestrian on an equal footing with the needs of vehicles.
Within a mixed use district, a good place to start is by categorizing all of the streets by their primary functions. Some streets, for example, may need to be used primarily for moving vehicles -- but this is generally a far smaller number than most people would expect. A strong grid of streets that can accommodate a moderate level of vehicular traffic is normally sufficient to meet demand.
Some streets may serve primarily utilitarian uses such as loading docks, parking garage access, utility infrastructure, or drive-through service. You don’t want or need very many of these, but the insistence of some planners that all streets be designed as a pedestrian paradise while relegating any utilitarian function to an alley is unrealistic. All streets should have sidewalks, but for streets in this category the sidewalks and pedestrian amenities can be very basic.
All of the remaining streets should be designed to be very pedestrian friendly, which means wide sidewalks, frequent and highly visible crosswalks, and appropriate street furniture and landscaping. There should also be clear accommodations given to bikes and scooters that are separate from sidewalks, and preferably separate from vehicular traffic lanes and on-street parking. The exact balance between the various modes of movement can vary but in most midwestern cities it needs to shift dramatically away from the current bias towards cars.
As important as it is to make walking safe and convenient, it is also important to plan for people who want to stop or linger. Restaurant seating areas, outdoor retailing, and public gathering areas such as plazas or courtyards should be encouraged and perhaps mandated in some situations. To enhance the experience of being in the street “place,” there should be an explicit plan for art in virtually all its forms. Sculptures, murals, street performers, creative fountains, decorative plants and more should all have a place. Mixed use districts need to have a distinct sense of fun and discovery as a part of their character. Unfortunately, neither cities or developers are particularly good at “fun” or “surprising” so the rules need to be flexible enough to allow creative people to express themselves in unexpected ways so that the district takes on its own local flavor and each visit holds the potential of stumbling across something new or unexpected.
Most architects probably dream of getting a commission with such a large construction budget that they can indulge their wildest design fantasies. Unfortunately for them, the reality is that most buildings have to be designed to meet very tight constraints. Architects often have little option but to design a utilitarian box with some decorative elements applied to the outside. When it comes to a mixed-use district in an urban area, having a limited budget is not necessarily a bad thing because when architects have a big enough budget to indulge their fantasies it generally results in a building that does not blend well with anything else around it. Although cities generally should not push for “iconic” designs, there are a few things that cities should lobby for strenuously.
Frame the streetscape. In the paragraphs above, I made the case for thinking of most streets as a “place” where people want to be rather than just pass through. For that to happen, the street space needs to be enclosed or framed by the adjacent buildings. This means that the buildings generally need to be at least two stories in height, with three to five stores being preferable. Single story buildings are not necessarily a disaster, but they should be avoided if possible and should have as tall a front facade as possible if they cannot be avoided. It also means that each building needs to be designed to work with adjacent buildings to form walls around the streetscape place that are as continuous as possible.
Build up to the street. This need to enclose the street space generally means that buildings should be built either on the property line adjacent to the street or at least within a few feet of the property line. Typical suburban zoning regulations often require that buildings be set back from the street 15 to 30 feet, and many building owners want a parking lot in front of the building which means even more distance between the building and the street. Newer zoning regulations aimed at mixed-use developments have replaced the building setback requirement with a requirement that buildings be pulled up to the street (called a “build-to” line) with parking
typically tucked behind. This requirement is definitely beneficial, although it is often written in a way that is too restrictive -- I think that buildings could be allowed to deviate from the build-to line by 6 to 8 feet and still create the sense of enclosure that is desired. Gaps, such as a driveway leading to a parking facility, should be kept as narrow as possible. The primary exception should be for spaces designed as pedestrian gathering spots. Pedestrian plazas or courtyards can provide public or semi-public spaces that can accommodate events or uses that don’t fit well in a normal street space.
Focus on the first floor. Buildings should be designed from the perspective of a pedestrian passing by, which means that the design emphasis should be on the first (and perhaps second) floor. Urban buildings are only occasionally seen from a distance great enough to allow the entire building to be taken in, and even that is generally only for a few seconds. People in vehicles are typically too focused on traffic to pay much attention to building details, so that leaves pedestrians in close proximity to the building as the only ones who are likely to care about building design -- and all they are likely looking at are the first and (maybe) second floors. So that’s where the highest quality materials should be, along with any decorative elements that provide visual interest. In addition, the first floor should be as transparent as possible so that pedestrians can see what is happening inside. It will make retail space more successful, restaurants more inviting, and office buildings safer, and it makes the entire streetscape a more interesting place for pedestrians to be.
Build for 100 years. We tend to design buildings for a single purpose even though our ability to predict what our society or our economy will need from a building is limited to maybe 10 or 20 years. Really useful urban buildings have the ability to be periodically renovated or reinvented to serve a new set of occupants with needs that are different from what was originally conceived. The adaptability of a well designed building is what allows a bank to become a library, an office building to become residential condominiums, or a warehouse to become an urban marketplace. In particular, building systems (wiring, plumbing and communications) need to be expandable and reconfigurable -- and occasionally, capable of being completely replaced with the newest technology. And yes, we should design buildings that are energy efficient, but the “greenest” design element is a building that can last 100 years or more because it can be adapted to new uses rather than torn down and replaced.
Design a hierarchy of spaces. If we have learned anything from the pandemic and the gradual re-opening from the lockdown, it should be that we need a finer gradation of spaces rather than just fully private or fully public. The buildings that were the most comfortable to live or work in had indoor and outdoor spaces that could be semi-public areas for small to mid-sized gatherings. Small, private spaces (such as your residence) were necessary during the lockdown but became claustrophobic over time. Large, unrestricted spaces (such as a park or a plaza) gave us relief from the claustrophobia but were scary. Mid-sized spaces that had some control over who was there gave us a place to reopen social channels in a responsible way. We need to make sure that all new buildings keep that in mind because the current pandemic probably won’t be the last pandemic.
Design Features for a New Age
Some of you reading the first two sections may think that I am calling for a return to the way things used to be built 50 or 80 or 100 years ago. While there is much to admire about that era of urban design, we can’t afford to get lost in nostalgia. It is great to learn from the past but the future holds new challenges that cities didn’t have to deal with 80 years ago. We need an urban design approach that provides solutions to these new challenges.
Take transportation as an example. Transportation in 10 years is going to be markedly different than it is today and it would have been inconceivable to developers in the early 1900s. New mixed-use districts need to not just accommodate transportation change, but be ready to embrace and optimize the new mix of travel options. The paragraphs below describe six additional design challenges that urban areas should be ready to address.
Accommodating pets. I have to confess that I am not a pet person, but seemingly everyone else is. Pets are everywhere and they will need to be accommodated by not only residential buildings but commercial buildings as well. If you don’t see this coming, look at the rise in the number of people traveling with pets. Taking pets to work or on your shopping trips are nascent trends now, but I predict they will be mainstream in 5 to 10 years. I don’t know exactly what building adaptations will be needed, but businesses and building owners better give this some serious thought.
Adapting to new work environments. Even before the pandemic, the ability to work remotely was a job perk that had significant value for millennials and Gen-Z. Now everyone wants that ability. I think some type of hybrid work schedule will become the most common option, but I’m not sure that it really matters. Residential units will need to include an office nook that can be customized for work if not a separate room that can be closed off for privacy and concentration. Commercial buildings will need to be able to accommodate office “hoteling” and will probably need more spaces designed for collaboration in small groups. All of this will be driven by expanded wireless communication systems (both WiFi and 5G) that will need to be both robust and ubiquitous -- and at the same time secure.
Curb space will be the new gold. Cities have traditionally used curb space for on-street parking often without much thought or analysis, but with the number of package deliveries skyrocketing, that may no longer be the best use of that increasingly precious commodity. UPS, FedEx and Amazon trucks often opt to double-park and block a lane of traffic when no loading zone or delivery dock is available. As a result, they pay millions of dollars in fines each year to major cities. Add taxis, Uber/Lyft drivers, Grubhub/DoorDash, and transit buses to the mix and there clearly is not enough curb space to go around. Cities will need to actively manage their curb space even in areas of moderate density, and that process will undoubtedly be contentious.
Not only is the volume of deliveries likely to continue growing, but eventually autonomous vehicles will need drop-off/pick-up areas for their passengers. Autonomous vehicles will bring the added problem of rush-hour peaks. Apartment buildings, schools and offices are all likely to cause a surge in pick-up/drop-off demand during a very limited window of time. Not only will cities need to dramatically increase the amount of curb space dedicated to loading areas, but they may need to regulate which kinds of services are allowed to use the loading areas during certain times of the day. This will require an incredible amount of coordination and communication between all of the various players.
Finding green space. Probably the largest part of the “mix” in most mixed-use districts will be residential units. And with a growing resident population will come a need for more park space. Cities have always provided some park space in even their most dense districts, but that space will be in demand for an increasingly wide array of uses from kids playing, to yoga classes, to community festivals. Cities will need to develop urban park designs that are different from the suburban park designs they are more familiar with, and they will need to be more compact than the sprawling “Central Park” designs that were popular in the early 1900s.
Electric car charging. Just a couple of years ago, the global sales of electric vehicles topped a million units for the first time (a little over 1% of total sales). Expect that number to grow exponentially over the next 10 years. In two or three more years, the unsubsidized cost of an electric vehicle will be roughly equal to a traditional gas vehicle. As the durability and cost efficiency of electric vehicles becomes more obvious, they will become the default choice for certain segments of the market -- particularly affluent adult households that are often the target demographic for urban residential projects. Those projects should be planning on having 5 to 10 percent of their parking spaces served by charging stations within the next few years, and that could grow to 20 or 25 percent by the end of the decade. Public and commercial parking structures should probably also add a few charging stations, but overnight charging at your residence makes so much sense that I think the majority of charging capacity belongs there.
Managing underground utilities. Most midwestern cities have been fairly lax in managing the maze of water, sewer, gas, electrical and communication lines that are essential to all forms of urban development. The result is quite frankly an inefficient mess that increases service costs and results in some streets being almost continually under construction as repairs and upgrades are made in a haphazard fashion. As density increases, it is my opinion that cities should take a much larger role in mapping, coordinating -- and in some cases dictating -- where utility lines are placed. Many utility providers have only a general idea of where their underground lines are located and much of this infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. Cities should develop standards for where each type of utility line should be located and constructed with an eye toward simplifying long-term maintenance and minimizing utility conflicts and traffic disruption when upgrades are needed.
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