Sunday, May 17, 2015

Urban Retail: Towards a Balanced Approach

Historic mixed use buildings with ground floor retail in Port Townsend, Washington.

Mixed use downtowns were the hearts of our cities for centuries. Early 20th century reformers, emboldened by their successes in zoning dirty industrial uses away from residential areas, decided that commerce was also an unhealthful influence on neighborhoods and began to outlaw the mixing of uses in early zoning ordinances. As the auto age ramped up, commerce often came hand-in-hand cars and traffic, so the urge to separate retail from homes grew stronger. The mixing of retail and residential uses was prohibited in most urban areas for a long time, and it was one of the factors in the long decline of American downtowns. 

Jane Jacobs broke with the conventional wisdom and advocated for mixed uses in the 1960s, but it took planners a while to listen. By the 1990s and 2000s urban revitalization professionals realized that mixed use development was something to be embraced. They saw that vibrant downtowns and urban neighborhoods had mixed uses, and that the most fun, active streets were the ones that had shops on the ground floors. Unfortunately, some cities went overboard and required ground floor retail everywhere. Many of the mandated retail spaces sat vacant, because the population of the area just couldn't support them.

We need a sensible approach to mixed use that reflects realities and limitations of retail, while also maintaining a commitment to vibrant streetlife. To be successful we need to redefine retail and deploy it in a very strategic way.