How Can We Make Our Cities More Vibrant?

NBBJ and Downtown Works Host a Seattle Salon on Urban Vitality

April 24, 2019

Senior Associate / Commercial Market Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: NBBJ and Downtown Works recently hosted an event with Canadian developer Robert Fung, president of the Salient Group, who spearheaded the revival of Vancouver’s Gastown neighborhood and the renaissance of New Westminster. Here are a few of the key takeaways on how to create more engaging, livable cities through development and design.

Create a Core If There Isn’t One. A city that treats all of its streets in the same manner can be soulless and centerless. Creating neighborhood hubs and carefully curating a thoughtful mix of retail stores and restaurants, as well as other uses at the street front to complement residential and office uses, is critical to creating a vibrant urban neighborhood.

Focus on the Ground Floor. While residential and office spaces typically drive the financial pro forma of mixed-use developments, it is the ground floor that defines a building’s identity. The places where buildings interact with the street have the power to shape our cities in dramatic ways. Bringing in ground floor tenants that attract diverse groups — residents, office workers, families and tourists alike — is valuable to driving a thriving city. Taking a holistic approach and allowing for highly permeable storefronts that enable the building to engage the sidewalk in a variety of ways improves street life and builds a unique neighborhood character.

Tenant Selection is Key to Success. While an appropriate balance of mixed-use offerings is key, providing retail that is the right scale for an urban neighborhood can dramatically affect its character. This process begins well in advance of leasing, involves engaging the neighborhood’s residents and developing an understanding of the community’s strengths and aspirations. For example, New Westminster, British Columbia’s original capital city, was once a major retail hub in the mid-twentieth century. Many of the stores shuttered, but a retail cluster focused on bridal dress shops organically evolved when other uses declined. Embracing and building on this unique cluster with complementary retail and restaurant tenants was an important part of the strategy to revitalize its downtown core.

Preserve and Build on the Historic Urban Character. Identifying and championing our neighborhoods’ and buildings’ historic elements creates great value, both functionally and aesthetically. Yet it’s more than just historic rehabilitation, preservation and façade retention. It’s also about capturing the unique spirit and history of each community that is embodied in the neighborhood’s historic fabric. Creating engaging pedestrians’ experiences that recreate and capitalize on the texture of heritage can be beneficial in establishing a feeling of comfort and familiarity with a place.

People Need Spaces to Socialize. The most attractive urban neighborhoods offer engaging social spaces that reflect the strengths and diversity of their residents and visitors. This ties back to the street front. With much of the focus on the upper floors of the building, street level components are often an afterthought in mixed-use projects. Placing an equal focus on the first floor and those above is critical to creating spaces and experiences that draw people to a building, help them feel comfortable and provide compelling social hubs that define great neighborhoods.

Our urban places are constantly changing, and to be successful, our cities must champion and celebrate diverse activities, uses and experiences.

If developments are carried through with the right intent and strategic collaboration, our cities will be energetic, lively and diverse — places that our future generations will be proud to call home.

Banner image courtesy of Daria Shevtsova/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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