Kathryn Firth

Kathryn Firth

Urban Design Director, NBBJ
Kathryn is originally from Toronto. After graduating from the Harvard GSD she worked in Boston for three years before relocating to London, where she worked in the private sector on urban design and regeneration projects and, more recently, as chief of design at the London Legacy Development Corporation, helping guide the transformation of the 2012 Summer Olympics site into a piece of city. She has been appointed one of the London Mayor’s Design Advocates, a role she will continue from Boston. In addition to her work in the UK, she also has extensive experience working in the Middle East and North America.

Could Public Space “Stitch” Atlanta Back Together?

A ULI Advisory Panel Investigates How to Reconnect Downtown and Midtown

November 4, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Like many cities across the United States, Atlanta is bisected by a highway that separates thriving neighborhoods, depresses surrounding land values, and diminishes residents’ experience of the city. Currently a solution being studied by Central Atlanta Progress and other agencies is “The Stitch,” a ¾-mile long “lid” over the Interstate 75/85 Downtown Connector currently bisecting Atlanta’s Downtown. This “stitch” would both create open space in the heart of the city and provide new development opportunities. Most importantly, it would catalyze socio-economic cohesion — “stitching” — between disparate areas of the city.

The Urban Land Institute recently convened an advisory panel to review the Stitch that included two economic development experts, a planning commissioner, a landscape architect and one other architect/urban designer in addition to myself. The agenda for the five-day panel was intensive: an in-depth briefing day including a site tour, meetings with sponsors, a day of hour-long interviews of some 70 key community representatives, then two days of formulating recommendations.

On the final day of the panel we made an oral presentation of our recommendations to the sponsor:

Scale the Stitch: As proposed, the Stitch is highly ambitious in its physical scope. After conducting an analysis of the economics, land-use context, history, national precedents and financial feasibility, we concluded that a project of the scale initially proposed was neither necessary nor financially feasible to achieve a transformative impact and the highest benefits for the greatest amount of people in Downtown Atlanta. We recommended halving the extent of the highway cover while improving the existing highway bridges nearby.

Honor Your Story: We encouraged local partners to use the opportunity of the Stitch to celebrate the history of Downtown Atlanta.

Align Implementation Actions: At present, the Stitch remains an exercise in visioning. In order to move the project forward, it will be imperative to align efforts relating to governance, funding and development.

Formalize Partnerships for Implementation: We suggested the creation of partnerships with key agencies that address housing, homelessness, wellness and transportation.

We hope the recommendations can provide lessons for Atlanta and other cities who are seeking to mitigate infrastructural severances and knit key pieces of their urban fabric back together. Read the full report here.

Banner image courtesy Joey Kyber/Unsplash.

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The Retail Balancing Act

How to Preserve the Local and the Global

September 30, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Visitors to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and today to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, often wonder why the main route to a park — a major civic space — is through a shopping centre. A reasonable question. The simplest, and somewhat unsatisfying answer is that Stratford was one of the poorest parts of not just London but the entire UK when the Westfield Group expressed an interest in investing there, and the local authority jumped at the offer. The London 2012 Games were hardly a twinkle in anyone’s eye and a Westfield shopping centre would, of course, ‘regenerate’ the area, with 280 shops and 70 restaurants providing some 8,000 new jobs.

Today, businesses that existed prior to Westfield Stratford City cannot afford the leases the new shopping centre demands. As a result, many of the surrounding streets are plagued by vacant and boarded up shopfronts. This, in turn, produces streets that become inhospitable environments.

Westfield Stratford City
(Richard Croft/Geograph)

This story is not an unusual one. It is well known now that shopping malls can sap the energy from local businesses, especially if they are selling similar products to the multi-nationals. Yet in an era when the viability of the main street is in question, thanks to on-line shopping, it is worthwhile to seek sustainable retail and town center models that provide a healthy balance of independent local retail and informal activities, alongside the multi-nationals.

The Stratford Shopping Centre, situated immediately east of Westfield Stratford City, presents an interesting, albeit not perfect, dynamic in conjunction with its newer neighbour. Built in 1974 on the site of an outdoor market, a condition of its construction was that it retain the existing market stalls. While not an architectural gem, it is a counterpoint to Westfield that fulfils an obvious need and is an important local community venue and amenity. It provides fresh fruit and vegetables at prices lower than the big grocery stores, along with products such as kielbasa and plantains that reflect the demographic makeup of the area. As well, in sharp contrast to Westfield, after hours the mall often gives the space over to skateboarders who enjoy the spacious smooth surface and reverberations from their portable music systems.

Another interesting precedent offering a mix of the local and the global is the Marylebone High Street in London, where a welcoming public realm is flanked by active frontages comprising diverse retailers. The properties on this street are under the purview of the Howard de Walden Estate. The ‘Estate’ manages a cross-subsidization that promotes a balance between the chains and the one-offs.

Marylebone High Street
(Malc McDonald/Geograph)

The Marylebone High Street provides an example of clear recognition on the part of a landlord to ensure a mix of the local and global. In the case of Westfield, a more-or-less happy co-existence between their global offering and local retail has evolved — albeit not by design. Two big boxes sit on either side of a busy road with their so-called ‘public realm’ almost entirely internalized and certainly under private management.

As this dichotomy between local and multi-national retail persists we should explore ways to, from the onset of regeneration and revitalization projects, proactively integrate these diverse merchandising worlds. At a time when everyone is pleading for places that support the ‘authentic’ and the local surely we ought to be more demanding and innovative in leasing strategies. It is ultimately paramount that in any given neighborhood all populations are served. This requires recognition that is both spatial — providing the space for the local to flourish — and economic — ensuring both the rent levels and offer are affordable to businesses and local constituents respectively.

Small local businesses are often owned by people with a long standing history in a neighbourhood. As preservation does not refer just to the building fabric but also to the retention of local social and economic qualities, we need to think innovatively about how these community assets — often representing ethnic and socio-economic diversity — might be retained.  Contributions by developers to a small business fund or the re-provision of small tenant space are a few potential mechanisms. Cross-subsidization from the multi-national to the local, while a great tool, may only be possible under specific property ownership scenarios.

New small independent retail should also be encouraged. It is often the complex and time/resources-consuming permitting process that is an insurmountable hurdle for the owner of an independent shop. To this end a streamlining of the process would be welcome, allowing less established shops and pop-ups to ‘test drive’ a retail concept.

There is, of course, a formal aspect to this issue which begs the question of the shopping centre or mall as a typology. Were Westfield’s area of 177,000m2 distributed along the length of streets, and the £1.45bn — Westfield’s price tag — invested in public realm improvements, the number of local jobs would have been the same but we would enjoy active street fronts for the length of a mile framing a healthy and truly public realm.

Economic stratification is not a new phenomenon. In most major cities there are instances where a very different population is being served from one urban block to the next: from Madison Avenue to Lexington Avenue in New York, from Bond Street to Oxford Street in London. Having said that, at the neighbourhood scale, where we strive to create places to live and work that are welcoming and affordable to all, the retail offer should similarly provide an integration of local and global shops and a rich experience for all.

Banner image courtesy domeckopol/Pexels.

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Suburban Retrofit

How to Transform Industrial Sprawl into a Compact Neighborhood Supporting Manufacturing

April 9, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Introduction

It has been encouraging over the past couple of decades to see many suburbs begin to transform from car-dependent, land-use-segregated enclaves to more compact neighborhoods that promote walking, cycling and a mix of uses. However, our towns and cities remain surrounded by many areas hosting light industry, which under-utilize adjacent infrastructure, turn their backs on nearby neighborhoods and fail to meet the growing interest in health and wellbeing.

Yet these island-like, unsustainable and amenity-deprived areas can be catalysts for innovative ways to address changing workplace expectations, logistics consolidation, sustainable urban systems — heat island mitigation, multi-modal connectivity, responsible water usage — and housing affordability. The ambition is not to displace industry but to introduce a mix of uses that will not only co-exist with it, but also benefit local industry and workers.

NBBJ researched one of these typical sub-urban areas to explore how it might be transformed, as a prototype for future developments in similar areas. We selected Woburn, Massachusetts, less than 20 miles from Boston, for its close proximity to regional public transport, adjacency of light industrial and residential uses, evidence of natural systems, and clear lack of amenities and services.

 

Case Study: Woburn, MA

The industrial park in Woburn, bounded by Interstates 93 and 95 and straddling the rail line that serves Anderson/Woburn station, typifies the conditions of the low-density, light industrial suburb. Our goal was to explore and demonstrate how this area can be retrofitted such that it will support a walkable, cyclable environment that supports living, working and recreation, and takes advantage of its close proximity to the train station. In particular we focused on opportunities to connect with natural systems and exploit their potential as a connected and civic realm.

The ambition of the project was to propose a prototypical spatial approach to retrofitting under-performing or soon-to-be-redundant light industrial areas, recognizing the socioeconomic implications of any proposed interventions. Critical to the study was the retention of light industry or potential for new manufacturing, research and biotech labs to co-exist with a mix of uses. As manufacturing and warehousing businesses compete for workers, being located in a context that offers amenities and services will increase their attractiveness.

 

Guiding Principles

We first conducted research to gain an understanding of Woburn as it compares to other towns in the region in local demographics and employment. Then, through a combination of on-site observation and informed conjecture, we considered rail usage and audited the businesses that occupy the site to gain an understanding of their logistics requirements.

The outcome of the study was a set of principles/objectives for this type of sub-urban site:

1. Connect to Nature

a. Integrate residential, civic, and commercial uses with pedestrian and green links. Pedestrian pathways and natural systems provide fluid connections between neighboring residential and commercial areas. Community uses like recreation fields, a senior center, multi-family housing, a civic center or library can provide transitions between commercial and industrial areas and residential areas. Similarly, the forging of a bicycle and pedestrian network connecting places of business to the commuter rail station provides modal choice for both workers and residents.

b. Use natural systems and materials to ensure the transformed industrial park is, indeed, more park-like and environmentally sustainable. Reimagine storm water infrastructure as a green amenity; mitigate heat islands through tree-planting and white, blue or green roofs. Sports fields and parkland serve local employees before or after work or at midday. Culverts, drainage systems and tree canopies should be seen as part of a cohesive natural and ecological systems network that links to and, where possible, provides green amenities with both recreational and connectivity benefits.

2. Diversify Land Uses

a. Integrate and expand community-facing uses into existing or former industrial buildings. Industrial buildings can include community amenities by incorporating related public-facing spaces and programming, such as convenience stores, F&B establishments or pop-ups that relate to the manufacturing/commercial activity. Capitalize on existing community-serving assets such as healthcare, education, daycare facilities, recreational facilities and gymnasiums by expanding their footprint and influence to contribute to active street-facing frontage and green/blue open space.

b. Identify opportunities to intensify with diverse residential types and development models. Provide residential choice, with a use mix and flexibility reflective of today’s needs, in order to address living and work space affordability and retain and attract a younger population that will lay down roots.

3. Create a Coherent Block Structure

a. Intensify the existing built form and open space. Add frontages onto buildings with large setbacks to activate streets. Define blocks to create separated routes, concentrating logistics routes and servicing on the interior of blocks. Stack storage vertically to open up building frontages for more active uses.

b. Catalyze adjacent densification through corridor improvements. Creating welcoming streets —generous sidewalks, tree canopies to mitigate heat islands, street lighting — will catalyze densification on adjacent blocks. Increased foot traffic and decreased car and truck speeds will encourage new development and more street-facing uses.

 

Precedents

There are few relevant precedents that attempt to intensify uses at the scale of an industrial district with the same qualities as our case study AND attempt to integrate residential. Similar projects are those that strive for a complete area-wide rebranding and reconfiguration to create an innovation district — a trend sweeping across Western cities that, encouragingly, recognizes that the lines between different activities are blurring. The Netherlands has been quite progressive in redeveloping industrial districts while allowing for the coexistence of manufacturing and housing, often focused around a single repurposed large-scale building that acts as a catalyst for wider redevelopment.

Econinnovation District (Uptown Oakland, Pittsburgh) presents a slightly different context from Woburn, as some residential and commercial exists in a site area characterized by surface parking lots and derelict buildings. However, the initiative is promoting rezoning to allow for a mix of research and work space, housing and community uses.

INIT (Amsterdam) is a multi-company building in the inner-city Oostenburgereiland, a former industrial area. INIT, housing meeting rooms, auditorium, fitness center, restaurant, childcare, exhibition and cultural space, is expected to catalyze the redevelopment of the industrial district and the renewal of a 19th-century neighborhood with housing, offices, culture, leisure, hotel and new bridges. Being situated near to a waterfront is obviously an asset.

Buiksloterham (Amsterdam) demonstrates how an existing industrial area can be intensified and transformed into a mixed-use area containing light industry, offices, culture and housing. The city is promoting an emphasis on sustainability and the circular economy, and (acknowledging that these types of sites are opportunities for diverse development models) self-builders are invited to build their own houses. Again, this site is situated on a waterfront, undoubtedly increasing its attraction.

Northside Studios (Andrews Road, London) accommodates five double-story light industrial units with on street lay-by access and a tight rear vehicular access. The 10 residential units above are set back from the road, minimizing the visual impact of activity associated with the industrial units below and creating a generous terrace. The units are adequate for many businesses, although they will be of limited use for noisy businesses or noxious operations.

The BDM Logistics Management (Royal Albert Basin, London) warehouse component left a plot available for residential development along a blank facade. Separate industrial access routes will be maintained with yard space on the opposite side from residential development, so the warehouse itself will shield noise from truck movements. The administrative elements of the BDM building are to be placed to bring human-scale activity along the street elevation.

 

Conclusion

The suburbs are abundant with places similar to the study area in Woburn — nearby to commuter transportation and employment hubs, developed in an environmentally unsustainable manner, transforming in their industrial needs, with residential neighborhoods in close proximity and natural systems untapped as a connective resource.

These are areas of opportunity, places that can cater to middle- and lower-middle-income households. Similarly, these suburban areas can offer affordable, diverse and flexible workspace — from makers’ spaces to biotech labs to healthcare and learning space — as businesses and institutions, like residents, are priced out of many cities.

It is paramount that we continue to explore typologies and neighborhood structures that allow light industry, workspace, housing and community infrastructure to co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.

Research credits: Carolyn Angius, Charlie Smith (NBBJ interns); Rodrigo Guerra, Kathryn Firth, Chris Herlich (NBBJ staff)

All images courtesy NBBJ, except aerial courtesy Google Maps.

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Micro-Units: Good for the City, Good for Citizens?

Thinking More Holistically About Housing Typologies and Zoning Will Improve Our Public Realm

January 10, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was additionally published by Building Design + Construction.

As economically booming cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco and London struggle with housing their growing populations, there is an increasing fixation on the micro-unit in the name of increasing residential provision. Also referred to as the compact unit, architects and developers are bringing ingenuity and investment to creating spaces that have pared domestic life down to its minimalist essentials. These small units have catalyzed a new relationship with the public realm.

Looking to Europe one can see a long tradition of using the city as one’s living and dining room, where urban middle-income units are small in relation to North American dwellings. In the United States, however, it is relatively recent that Americans are choosing to live in city centers. Part of the appeal of the suburbs was the generous indoor and outdoor private space. The move downtown, where the offer is generally a smaller dwelling, has meant less private space. And so our new city dwellers are venturing out of their homes to pursue their social lives. This is good for our cities. This is good for our local economies.

But who are these micro-units for? On the face of it this “progress” is meant to help address both the accommodation of sheer numbers of people and the affordability of living in the city. However, it is impossible not to question how tiny units truly answer this need.

It has become apparent that we are creating city centers that cater to a thin slice of the population: pre-nesters and empty-nesters. The problem is threefold: the units being built are, even if not micro, rarely larger than 2-bedrooms (and a tight 2-bedroom at that); secondly, only a very small percentage are “affordable,” not to mention that the definition of “affordable” means many lower-middle-income people do not qualify for support; and, thirdly, the city’s amenities and services are often unaffordable as they cater to the affluence of those who can afford the newly built units.

For the millennials currently sharing a dwelling unit, they are forced out of the urban center to the suburbs when they want to have families. Even if housing and services affordability is not the barrier, there are few homes catering to households requiring 3-bedrooms or more. People are left little choice but to join the swathes of commuters emitting carbon, undoubtedly against their better judgement.

There is a further related concern. Thanks to policy and design guidance, many condominium buildings are designed to accommodate retail or food & beverage on the ground floor. However, despite the fact that people may be looking to the city to fulfill their entertainment needs, we find increasing numbers of empty shopfronts on our main streets and city centers. In this era of on-line shopping and food delivery, it is acutely obvious that we can no longer rely only on shops, cafes, bars and restaurants to activate our streets. Meanwhile, competing for market share, developers provide their condo buildings with gyms, meeting spaces, makers’ spaces and indoor dog runs. It is time these amenities are literally brought down to the ground. Let’s redistribute the activity.

As learning and making become more widely accessible and less institutionalized, one can imagine these sorts of uses occupying ground floors and attracting public interaction. Boston’s downtown was boosted when Suffolk and Emerson Universities came to occupy both bespoke and existing buildings. As students do not lead a nine-to-five lifestyle, ground floor activity and “eyes on the street” have improved round-the-clock.

Similarly the contemporary public library can become a space that projects and attracts vibrancy. The Idea Store in London is a good example of this. Community infrastructure — from gathering space to recreation to cultural events — provides clues as to the sorts of uses that co-exist well with the public realm. This may call for revisions to existing zoning to allow for diverse ground-floor uses — indeed, redefining “active frontage.”

The concept of the Business Improvement District (BID) has been a fantastic mechanism in many city centers, improving the safety, cleanliness and temporary events in many downtowns. However, it may also be time to redefine the scope of the BID, enforcing ground-floor activity even if that means providing space to a tenant that is not a commercial enterprise, such as a cultural institution or community use. Positive, or negative, incentives to lease empty shopfronts may be required.

It is time to promote — even demand — building types that accommodate larger households and instigate mechanisms that facilitate the distribution of amenities and services across the scale of not just a building but an urban block or blocks. This entails exploiting the trend to blur the distinction between dwelling, working, leisure and learning. In this way those people living in micro-units — as it is unrealistic, nor even desirable, that they all disappear — as well as larger multi-generation households, will have a more interesting city to venture into.

Banner image courtesy of Kamen Atanassov/Unsplash.

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The Civic in the Suburbs

How to Put the “Park” Back into the Business Park

July 17, 2018

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Planetizen.

Over the past decade, the public realm — comprising streets and public spaces like parks and squares — in downtowns and urban neighborhoods has been recognized as critical to the functioning and livability of a city. The public sector is increasingly allocating funds — or trying to allocate funds — for the provision of usable open space. In city centers, developers are wise to this renewed interest in public space. A “public realm provision is integral to the branding of new developments: these spaces are heavily programmed,” hosting everything from yoga classes to farmers’ markets.

Meanwhile, ULI’s Emerging Trends in Real Estate report for 2018 [pdf] notes that as Millennials are beginning to reach their home-buying and child-bearing years, there is an expectation that demand for suburban office space will rise, bringing with it an expectation for “urban” amenities in suburban locations.

However, in the suburbs there is little or no space provided for true civic interaction.

The Challenge of the Civic in the Suburbs

Why should we care about the civic? The civic is the acknowledgement of our responsibilities to our fellow citizens; it promotes social cohesion, and, one could argue, is more important than ever in this era of political discord. Perhaps fostering a civic realm will help us know our neighbors, and we will look out for, and respect, each other; perhaps it will help mitigate the marginalization of the elderly, the infirm, and those simply viewed as “the others.”

The civic also allows us to navigate what sociologist Richard Sennett in “The Spaces of Democracy,” the 1998 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture at the University of Michigan College of Architecture + Urban Planning, described as the fundamental diversity of urban environments:

“Difference” today seems to be about identity — we think of race, gender, or class. Aristotle meant something more by difference; he included also the experience of doing different things, of acting in divergent ways which do not nearly fit together. The mixture in a city of action as well as identity is the foundation of its distinctive politics. Aristotle’s hope was that when a person becomes accustomed to a diverse, complex milieu, he or she will cease reacting violently when challenged by something strange or contrary. Instead, this environment should create an outlook favorable to discussion of differing views or conflicting interests.

Ride the Market

Private enterprise, for one, is beginning to recognize the importance of the civic realm. Life sciences campuses, technology parks, and enclaves of light industry are embracing what it means to be a contemporary and appealing workplace. They recognize that facilitating collaboration and knowledge exchange is key to attracting the best and the brightest. They understand that their employees have rising expectations about access to amenities, the outdoors, and activities that contribute to well-being.

Certainly the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook have suggested new paradigms for how to fulfill these objectives. Encouragingly, even housing, supporting services such as grocery stores, and community infrastructure are being introduced to business parks. Business Insider reports that “Facebook, for example, plans to put 1,500 new housing units, a grocery store, pharmacy, and shopping center in the 56-acre Menlo Science & Technology Park it bought in 2015. The company calls the development a ‘mixed-use village.’” Facebook has agreed to pay $15 million in support subsidies and projects for Menlo Park, in addition to bringing $636,000 in revenue annually.

While Facebook seems to be taking a very progressive and inclusive approach, the creation of competitive corporate campuses inevitably focuses on the employee. However, we are citizens first, and then employees.

As business parks are redeveloping to include a greater mix of uses, as defunct malls are being repurposed or literally turned inside out, and as retail spaces become harder and harder to maintain in an era of online retail, this is an opportune moment to reconfigure the suburbs, make sustainability more than a buzzword, and create inclusive places and spaces that are truly imbued with a sense of the civic.

The Civic as Connective Tissue

To provide truly public and civic space, workplaces and retail parks must not only provide for their workers and shoppers, but must also contribute to their wider environment. Similarly, adjacent neighborhoods must be able to “infiltrate” the territory of the technology, life science, or healthcare campus, as well as the shopping mall. It is the generally underdeveloped zones between the campuses and the host suburb or town that provide the greatest opportunity.

civic connectorsPerhaps the suburban civic realm should reflect why people moved to the suburbs in the first place — they wanted access to open space and proximity to nature and natural systems. Or they wanted a more intimate lifestyle, in contrast to the anonymity of the city. As we consider the suburban context, we need to find opportunities to connect with natural systems, even if only remnants exist, and exploit their potential as a civic realm. After all, hikers greet each other on a forest path despite not knowing anything about each other. People do not do this in a public square or a shopping mall.

We must find ways to extend forest into the civic realm — literally and figuratively. The often daunting physical and perceptual distances between dispersed neighborhoods and diverse people can be bridged using natural systems, much like the BeltLine currently being completed in Atlanta, or the Old Croton Aqueduct trail that connects the small towns and suburbs north of New York City. (Indeed, a retail main street could never span the full length of some of these connective routes.)

Common Ground

The civic in the suburbs has the potential to manifest in destinations that, in the best cases, provide social cohesion — the recreation center, the legion hall, the youth club. Indeed, it provides an opportunity to explore new typologies — the primary school integrated with a seniors’ home by shared outdoor ground and roof space, or the library providing apprenticeships and workshops.

No uses are better positioned to provide an environment that fosters spiritual and physical well-being than those related to science, education, and healthcare. The built form should maximize accessibility and frame a public realm that allows for inter-generational interaction, recreation, physical and intellectual mentoring, debate, and collaborative production.

As “making” and a return to the trades becomes more prevalent, we can look to these sorts of activities to frame and activate the public realm. The Design Center in Boston, which houses Autodesk BUILD, is headed this way, as are many innovation districts. We need to ensure there are activities people can participate in for free, from gardening to outdoor chess to sports — activities that cut across generations and income groups. To this end it is worth learning about temporary uses from tactical urbanism and guerilla urbanism, which allow diverse communities to collaborate to test their vision of citizenship.

Next Steps

It is a timely moment to infuse the suburbs with a civic and meaningful public realm. Unfortunately, this is also an era when public resources are scarce. Therefore, to incorporate these civic spaces into re-configured portions of the suburbs, we will need to find ways to leverage space to accommodate them. To achieve those goals, we should consider mechanisms such as:

  • development impact fees that require the private sector to provide spaces dedicated to civic activity;
  • Business Improvement Districts or Public Improvement Districts where adjacent land owners support yet give over some of their control of the space;
  • locational criteria to ensure the allocated spaces can be active and safe;
  • and design guidance and form-based codes that all new development and redevelopment must conform to — which should be produced now, before the market dictates its approach.

If we are to create a civic realm in the suburbs, we need to be proactive. The market is advanced in ensuring its own needs are satisfied, but less so for ensuring a true civic realm for all. While urban design alone cannot reinstate the civic, it can provide much-needed platforms and forums for the interaction and shared experiences that suburbs — no less than their urban centers — want and deserve.

Banner image courtesy of Google Earth.

Illustration courtesy of Kathryn Firth/NBBJ.

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A Call for Urban Intensification

Five Priorities for Creating Mixed, Happy, Intensified Cities

November 13, 2017

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

As cities around the world grow, questions are rising: How many people can one city sustain? Will cities be affordable places for all — and for all activities — or enclaves for only the wealthy? What impact will they have on the environment?

Often these questions revolve around metrics that measure density — ratios or other units of measurement such as population/acre, dwellings/acre, or floor area ratio — and the denser a proposal, the more likely a community will resist change. However, these figures express only the quantitative aspects of city life, leaving aside the qualitative: the what and the how people are doing, and when. Interrogating this also helps us answer the why. Why are people often still car-dependent? Why do some places feel unsafe at certain times of the day? Why are people not getting enough exercise?

Rather than focus on urban “densification,” therefore, perhaps we should consider urban “intensification.” Intensification focuses on the complementary uses that occur around-the-clock, whether in a building, a block or a wider piece of city. Not only would intensification create better cities by reducing travel time between places of work, living and learning, promoting knowledge exchange and fostering a multi-generation environment, it would also have the potential to solve many of the most complex issues of our time.

 

Blur

The good news is our urban environments are already ripe for intensification as the lines between activities and land uses are blurred:

  • People want to, and do, work from where they live. Household configurations are changing as people live longer and urban living becomes less affordable.
  • Where, how and when we work is changing — productivity is mobile, happens 24/7 and is collaborative. Our live-work communities are often virtual, but the importance of face-to-face interaction is still central to success.
  • There is a desire to integrate leisure activities and play — sport, recreation, culture — into our daily lives as their benefits to health and well-being are understood. Similarly, academic and “commercial” research are intertwined with “learning through doing,” linked to social sustainability.
  • Ideally, the city should be envisioned as an educational laboratory for all ages — we learn outside the classroom.

We are seeking spaces for collaborative production in the city — spaces and places that integrate where we live, work, play and learn. It is happening already as retail, entertainment, workspace and residential uses are vertically arranged within a single building envelope, in places such as the Seaport in Boston. Co-working spaces have been established in cities everywhere, often hosting knowledge exchange events. Custom-built co-housing often incorporates spaces for collective work or recreation. Parking garages that are vacant on the weekend and malls that are empty at night are appropriated by skateboarders.

 

Intensification

However, living, working, playing and learning do not always co-exist happily under the same roof, or even within the same city block. The 24-hour city might sound exciting, but sleeping next to a dance club or a welder might prove irritating. On the other hand, one can imagine a lecture hall that turns into a dance club, a welder’s yard that is shared by a vocational school several hours a day, or a rooftop kitchen garden and greenhouse shared by the occupants of a building — that perhaps includes seniors’ residences or a secondary school — overlapping in their use of the amenity but each also having dedicated time in it.

It is critical that we devise visionary and innovative responses to current trends that allow for an increase in urban intensity while maintaining a high quality of life. Ultimately this is a call to revisit not only the types of buildings and urban blocks we are producing, but also the policies that currently restrict a maximized and productive mix of uses and, in turn, restrict growth through intensification. It is a call to ensure that:

  1. Building and block typologies are developed that are flexible and draw on lessons from the past while innovating for the future. Homes should provide a range of spaces that allow for living, working and sharing space and facilities between households. Some condominiums recognize this both through their covenants and the provision of shared indoor and outdoor space. The multi-generation home allows for this flexibility, providing an ancillary building for the extended family, privacy and/or a place to work.
  2. Strong and clear governance is provided across buildings and neighborhoods — a return to the civic through the identification of a shared common purpose that promotes behavioral change, normalizing sharing and resource efficiency. This is highly attainable — we did not recycle 30 years ago, yet in many cities it now feels wrong to throw away plastic with organic waste. Co-housing and co-working spaces can be a great success, intensifying the use range and knowledge exchange, but only with the right governance in place.
  3. Development incentives that promote innovation in sustainability and delivery methods are instigated. Regulations exist that set environmental and social sustainability performance targets; however, dedicated funds for this infrastructure must be introduced that ensure a use mix beyond retail and integrate natural systems and resilience.
  4. Local identity is recognized and promoted, especially in the public realm, where difference should be celebrated and reflective of the local culture. Intensification is not just about buildings. Food production need not be ground-related — for example, the rooftop urban agriculture of Brooklyn Grange provides food and plays a pedagogical role. Infill buildings can literally bridge diverse uses while intensifying the city.
  5. Innovative delivery models are implemented that subsidize social infrastructure, recognizing the importance of short-term wins for long-term gain. In order to deliver high-quality, low-carbon development in growing cities undergoing change, it is critical the right people work together and recognize the benefits of intensification. Development and project briefs produced by both public and private sector clients must encourage innovative thinking rather than opting for the status quo. This calls for collaboration across diverse disciplines combined with political will.

Through big data and a myriad of tracking technologies we are now beginning to have the tools to measure intensification; what we don’t always have are the policies that allow and encourage it, nor the type of buildings and urban blocks that best accommodate it. Understanding use patterns creates the opportunity to explore how intensification can accommodate growth in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way.

Banner image courtesy of Pexels.

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