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 Balanced Mix: The Story of Four Learners

How Colleges and Universities Can Provide Environments to Meet Diverse Learning Needs

December 7, 2017

Architect, NBBJ

As pedagogies evolve from traditional lectures to a more active, team-based learning approach, higher education institutions are beginning to allocate space to emphasize active learning interactions both inside and outside the classroom, with the belief that this will help students learn and retain more. Colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the need for learning environments outside the classroom, but many times these manifest themselves as “in-between” spaces in corridors and student lounges, without specific attention to the kinds of environments that better foster learning.

As curriculum expands beyond the scheduled classroom, the demand for these spaces increases. Therefore, it is necessary to narrow in on the students who use these spaces, who they are and how they learn, in order to increase retention rates and produce successful graduates. Then institutions, in partnership with architects and designers, can begin to tailor learning environments outside of the scheduled classroom to a more targeted user scope.

 

Who Are the Learners?

The first step in defining these spaces is to understand who these learners are and how they learn. There are many types of learners and hybrids of sorts. Pedagogy experts Peter Honey and Alan Mumford of the University of Leicester identity four types of learners: Explorers, Thinkers, Observers and Testers.

Explorers try anything once. They like to tackle problems by brainstorming and fully immersing themselves in the moment. They are open-minded and not skeptical.

Thinkers assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories. They have a linear thought process that follows a step-by-step procedure. They are logical, detached, and analytical.

Observers collect data through their own experiences and observations of others. They consider all possible outcomes and angles before making a decision. Their philosophy is to be cautious.

Testers experiment with application. They seek links between training and current needs in the search for immediate applicable benefits. They are practical.

 

How to Design for the Learners?

Classroom learning environments will continue to be a mix of traditional and team-based space types. However, as the four types of learners digest knowledge in very different ways, they need different types of spaces outside the classroom.

An Explorer seeks variety as they act on impulse. They may be perfectly adaptable in any environment they happen to be in; however, they may be drawn to an environment that allows for open thought and brainstorming with a team, such as an active, open student area with writing surfaces. They are not habitual and may try different environments each day.

A Thinker seeks a logical rationale and may be drawn to an internal reflective space that secludes them from the outside world. This provides a focused environment that is consistent and reliable. They may be content in a small enclosed room or nook that provides a sense of privacy with acoustic isolation and visual separation.

An Observer seeks all information possible and may position themselves in a space that allows for conducting research through observation of others and reflection on their own experiences. They may be drawn to a more active team-based room where they can work with others and exchange information based on past experiences. They may also require access to research information, either analog or digital. These environments may be best positioned within a library or learning center.

A Tester seeks learning through action and will be more drawn to environments that allow for hands-on application, whether in a laboratory, studio or maker space. They may require more space and tools to allow for simulation or making.

How-to-enable-learners_171031

Institutions may struggle with the idea of providing such individualized space within the constraints of money and space allocations. A key to finding this balance and allowing for such user-centric spaces outside the classroom is to provide a level of flexibility and user-adaptability within the range of the learner-defined environments, in order to encompass the larger variety of learners.

For instance, a student lounge may appeal to a larger range of learners with the addition of mobile furniture, writing surfaces and movable walls. Spaces can also be made more flexible by allowing the room use to shift throughout the day: scheduled breakout rooms become team project rooms; faculty huddle rooms become enclosed study rooms. Small shifts in the programming and details of these spaces can provide flexibility and user-adaptability to address the range of learners.

Colleges and universities will help the broad range of learners to be more successful and encourage retention by understanding the inherent qualities of how students learn and by implementing, in partnership with architects and designers, a balanced mix of learning environments in and outside of the classroom that speak to these learning traits.

All images courtesy of NBBJ (photo by Benjamin Benschneider).

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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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