In Part 1 of this article I described how rigid land use zoning makes it difficult for local retailers to thrive and catalyzes big box retail. A solution to these car-dependent land use zones is the “urban center” that is created through locally led placemaking. Today, we’ll go further into this concept by looking into the characteristics of an urban center, and implementation strategies for your local community.

As described in my first article, urban centers have three core characteristics:

  1. A Walkable, Interconnected Street System
  2. A Compact mix of Land Uses
  3. Adjacency to Major Transportation Infrastructure

1. Walkable, Interconnected Street System

The most important aspect of any urban center is that it be a walkable place with an interconnected system of streets. Satisfying this characteristic requires ample space for the pedestrian, and limited or shared spaces for the automobile. Sidewalks should be wide enough for two couples to comfortably walk past each other (at least 8 feet wide), and generally free of clutter that forces pedestrians to weave a path around obstacles. Walkability also includes providing separate bike lanes on major streets. On more minor streets, a streetscape (often called a “woonerf”) where pedestrians, bikes, and cars share the street together might be ideal. Of course, all of this pedestrian infrastructure must be interconnected through a system street that provides multiple access routes to every portion of an urban center.

This photo and the one below are examples of good pedestrian infrastructure in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Note how the sidewalks provide a clear, straight path while still providing the necessary space for domestic and aesthetic treatments. (Photo by Alexander Dukes.)

The (fading) green lane –demarcated with white line– is a bike lane.  Of particular importance to walkability are the street trees, as seen in both photos. Street trees provide shade on hot summer days, and a splash of natural color against what would otherwise be a hard urban environment. (Photo by Alexander Dukes)

On streets where there is little automobile traffic, a woonerf can be a great idea. Woonerfs are streets where pedestrians, bike riders, and cars share the same space. The effect of a woonerf facilitates a much more complex and intimate interaction with public space that isn’t possible on streets with space dedicated to cars. Many Woonerfs regularly play host to markets, outdoor dining, and spontaneous games of soccer or basketball Attribution: Wikipedia, Erauch from nl, CC BY-SA 3.0.

These elements should yield a place that is fairly walkable; however, these are just the basics on creating a walkable place. Reading Jeff Speck’s book The Walkable City is highly recommended for those seeking more detail on walkability than I can cover here.

In your community, there are some basic, inexpensive steps you can begin to take to start working towards these goals, even if your street is very auto-oriented:

A.  To widen the sidewalk without pouring concrete, you can simply place some type of inexpensive barrier out into the paved roadway. These can include crowd control barriers, plastic barriers, hay bales, or potted plants. With a widened sidewalk, the pedestrian egress (movement) space is often separated to form an active lounge space:   

In a sidewalk widening for Better Block, Kansas City, the sidewalk space was doubled by consuming automobile lanes on a downtown street. The lounge space is in the former roadway, while the egress space remains on the dedicated sidewalk. (Photo by Mike Sinclair)

B.  To make a bike lane, all it really takes is some paint to delineate the street space. A width of 5 to 6 feet should be suitable for one-way bike travel in most situations. For safety purposes, barriers like those used to delineate pedestrian space can be placed alongside the bike lane to better alert drivers to the presence of bikers.

C.  Painting crosswalks is a fun and engaging way to get the whole family involved in highlighting the importance of pedestrian space and improving safety. Watch volunteers from the Town of Richmond Hill, Ontario come together to paint a crosswalk:

2. Compact Mix of Land Uses

To support the concept of walkability, land uses within the urban center need to be within a walkable distance from one another. A person that makes their home within an urban center should be able to fulfill all of their daily needs by walking no farther than a half mile from their residence. Practically, this means that a fully built urban center should have a diameter no greater than 1-mile from end to end. Basic urban land uses like retail, offices, residences, education, and recreation spaces should all ideally fit within this 1-mile diameter. Assuming the urban center has fulfilled the requirement of featuring a walkable environment, residents in the area will naturally start walking to nearby land uses that are relevant to their daily lives.

Compressing critical land uses like offices, retail, and recreation into a half mile distance from residences is essential to creating a dynamic, active place. Along with walkability, a compact mix of land uses is what creates the social attraction that draws people into a place. Walkability connects and binds places together. Compaction and mixing are what make places interesting.

In your community, creating a permanent mix of land uses for an urban center will take time. Most likely, getting all of these new land uses will require a rezoning or new plan from the municipality, and action from private developers. However, placemakers can sow the seeds of change by mixing commercial and institutional uses in vacant or underutilized buildings.

For example, many communities activate underutilized spaces by bringing in food trucks and pitching tents to create open air markets where local craftspeople can sell their wares. To mix uses with this type of open air retail, one option could be to rehabilitate a vacant building to host a makeshift activity center for kids that provides daycare and afterschool services. The parents and kids that use the activity center will naturally patronize the food trucks and retail tents, activating the space further.

Typically, initiatives like makeshift activity centers or open air markets start as seasonal events that are done at specific times throughout the year. Don’t expect to have a permanent mixed-use implementation on your first try. The key is to persistently assert the idea that a space can be better. Eventually, municipal government and private developers will take notice, and involve placemakers in developing more permanent uses for the land or structures in the area. 

The Woodlawn Street Market in Birmingham, Alabama is a temporary outdoor market event that takes place on various dates throughout the year. The market offers local craftspeople the opportunity to sell their wares in historic downtown Woodlawn. Combined with a number of other grassroots efforts and cooperation with The City of Birmingham, the Woodlawn Street Market has led to renewed interest in development in the Woodlawn area. Hundreds of new, high-quality housing units were being constructed when I last visited the area in 2015, and local businesses are steadily returning. (Photo fromWoodlawn Street Market

To add a little variety to the market, a breakdancing contest is held nearby. As you can see, it draws a crowd!(Photo from Woodlawn Street Market

If you feel as though there are too many regulatory barriers in your city to jumpstart compact mixed-use development, try entering into a dialogue with your city council and public administrators about Lean Urbanism. Lean Urbanism is a middle ground between full regulatory control and free-for-all development.

3. Adjacency to Major Transportation Infrastructure

Due to most of America’s suburban development pattern, an urban center 1-mile in diameter isn’t going to be wide enough to capture everyone within a half mile of their residence. This reality means that urban centers must be sited close to major transportation assets within a city. Whether the urban center is close to a railway station, streetcar stop, or major boulevard, the purpose of locating near these assets is to take advantage of the fact that many people are already moving through the space.

Just because a street needs to carry a large number of automobiles, doesn’t mean it can’t also be pedestrian oriented. Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway carries large numbers of both pedestrians and automobiles. Consider creating spaces like this for auto oriented “stroads” in your community- especially if you’re creating an urban center attached to them. Streets like Eastern Parkway increase accessibility for all modes of transportation. (Photo by Alexander Dukes)

Adjacency to transportation assets provides the urban center an opportunity to draw more people into its space. By satisfying the principles of walkability and a compact mix of land uses, the urban center will naturally attract curious passers-by. (Yes, even drivers!) As these commuters move through the urban center on their way to work or home they may decide on a whim to enjoy a drink at a bar, or buy groceries from a store. Eventually, word will spread and the urban center will become a destination within the psyche of the local population. People will begin to spend their evenings there, stop by for breakfast, take their dates to their favorite restaurant or nightclub, or just go to the park to get away from the bustle of urban life. When you’ve achieved this sort of natural attraction where people living outside the urban center want to come to the area as a destination, your urban center has succeeded. 

In your community, the best place to locate an urban center may be an existing shopping center that is underperforming. Shopping centers tend to be located at major intersections or along boulevards that continue to be busy after the big box stores are vacated. (We’ve all driven by that vacant K-Mart that saw its best days in the 80’s.) As long as there is a great deal of activity happening on the street around the shopping center, people will stop by if they think it’s worth their time. Of course, once you find a site, you still have to fulfill the other two criteria, so get out those hay bales, paint, food trucks, and tents, and get to placemaking!