Rethinking retail’s role in animating streets and public spaces

Written by  //  June 15, 2019  //  Posts, Retail Feasibility  //  No comments

For decades, planners, urban designers, and policy makers have advocated for street-facing ground floor retail space as a means of animating streets and public spaces. Retail was in many ways the optimal use for achieving this activation due to its foot traffic generation and visual diversity created by storefront designs, lighting, and window transparency. Many successful examples across North America illustrate that this retail-focused approach to building facades has resulted in excellent placemaking outcomes.

The continuing disruption of the retail industry undoubtedly means that retail space growth in the future will lag behind population increases. In the US, retail space is already in decline in oversaturated markets such as Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Between 2007 and 2018, US metro areas lost on average one square foot of retail space per capita.

Less overall demand for retail space means that we must reconsider our approach to building facade animation. While traditional retail uses will continue to play a role in the overall composition of ground floors, other strategies should be employed in future developments.

Reduce and concentrate activation areas

In contrast to the ambitious retail high streets highlighted on master plans, a new more conservative approach to activation areas should be considered. Shortened stretches of inline shops between anchors and a clear prioritization of primary streets or concourses will help concentrate foot traffic. Overall, the gross floor area of retail uses in new mixed-use projects will shrink as a proportion of total space and a more strategic approach will be required to layout configurations.

Retail alternatives

If carefully designed, similar levels of animation can be achieved by the service industry. While these uses have always been integrated within retail streets, the role of services as contributors to public realm animation have not been properly leveraged. For example, new bank prototypes are being designed to mimic the look and feel of cafes.  Gyms are foregoing perforated vinyl window graphics in lieu of a more transparent and visible environment. Ensuring these uses are built with maximum transparency and minimal setbacks is a necessary precondition to achieving animation.

Reprioritizing public realm space

Street animation can also be achieved through the activation of the public realm itself. Within existing right-of-ways, there are often ample opportunities to introduce small scale interventions. Permitting retail vendor pop-ups in street parking spaces, for example, helps keep main streets dynamic. Municipalities have also partnered with local artists and cultural organizations to curate collections of interactive exhibits. Some of the most popular of these have also been among the cheapest, such as this “forest of pool noodles”.

Civic anchors

Public institutions have long played a role in drawing visitors to main streets and town centres. Unfortunately, over the past few decades government organizations have often opted to relocate these facilities further afield due to land costs and parking needs. Libraries, community centres, government offices, post-secondary institutions, and even hospitals can play an important role in stabilizing streets and public spaces, particularly during times of recession. The best examples, such as the one shown below, not only draw people but also actively animate the public realm as effectively as any retail use.

In Toronto, George Brown’s Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts successfully animates the adjacent street, as described by Kearns Mancini Architects: “Placing the Chefs along the streetscape – effectively putting the School into the public arena – was the result of a collaborative design process built on consensus. The two buildings’ use of transparency effectively invites the public to engage as an audience to the cookery taking place directly beyond the streetscape.

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Reurbanist

Reurbanist is a multi-disciplinary firm that blends land use economics with urban planning and economic development. At its core, Reurbanist believes that great urban places that are compelling and vibrant must find success at both a fiscal and social level. Stronger cities and urban destinations translate into improved job growth, municipal tax revenue, and a higher quality of life for residents.

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