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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Thriving, Not Just Surviving: Solving the Climate Crisis

A Visit to the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit

October 4, 2019

Director of Design Performance, NBBJ

I had the privilege of joining the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York City earlier this fall. Amongst the many tracks at the event, my focus was on Infrastructure, Cities, and Local Action — how to bring climate solutions to bear in cities that are on the front lines of emissions, impact and action. As the creators of cities and the urban context, our profession plays an integral part of any climate crisis solution and must be actively involved in driving the world forward.

My key take-away from the summit is the broader societal success that will result when our cities transform into zero-carbon economies. Zero-carbon cities will be healthier, cleaner, more connected, more resilient, and the drivers of innovation and green economic success. They will be the places where you want your children and grandchildren to live. It’s hard to argue against that.

It is of utmost importance for the design industry to elevate the discussion around these greater societal benefits, especially in these times of disagreement over the urgency of the climate crisis. Focusing on the non-climatic benefits can drive greater change while we reap the environmental benefits. There are stories and threads for every audience — be it economic growth, resilience and security, human health, ecosystem restoration or social justice.

What can we do, as city designers, in a context where, as Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, said at the summit, 75% of the 2050 infrastructure has yet to be built? Here are a few ideas:

  • Bring long-term thinking to our projects. All our current buildings will be around in 2050 — are they able to make the transition and meet the 2050 goals for zero carbon?
  • Utilize full-cost, life-cycle accounting in our decision-making, bringing in the cost of carbon and societal impacts and evaluating them from construction to decommissioning.
  • Focus on the human experience — zero carbon means little if our projects aren’t wonderful places for people.
  • Focus discussions around non-carbon benefits to build stakeholder support.
  • Don’t look for a “new tech silver bullet” — the solutions we need, from heat pumps to solar and wind energy, are here, now.
  • Lead from within.*

While getting to zero carbon by 2050 is a daunting task, it is achievable. We see tremendous growth in action and commitment across the public and private sector — whether it’s Amazon’s recent Climate Pledge, New York City’s buildings’ carbon emissions law or the consortium success of the C40 Cities Initiative.

I’m bullish about our capabilities and the passion and talent across the AEC industry and beyond. Together, we can drive this exponential curve to zero carbon and enjoy a beautiful and healthy future in our cities — cities that will house 5 billion of us by 2050.

“Getting there [to zero carbon cities] will be the growth story of the 21st century.”
—Lord Nicholas Stern, London School of Economics

 

* Here are a few of the things NBBJ is doing:

  • More than a decade of commitment to the Architecture 2030 Challenge
  • Leaders who are active in their communities, from driving local code changes to serving on national and international boards and committees, including the Living Futures Institute, the AIA’s Energy Leadership Group and ASHRAE
  • Founding sponsorship of and membership in Targeting 100! with the University of Washington
  • Our Legacy Project in partnership with the Nature Conservancy

 

Banner image courtesy of Pixabay.

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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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