Re-Calibration of the Retail Environment: The Expanded Role of Landscape Architects and Implications on Urban Design

by Daniel Straub, ASLA, Daniel Ashworth, Jr., PLA, ASLA, AICP, and Lauren Patterson, PLA, ASLA

Looking north up Broadway from Union Square, NYC / image: Lauren Patterson

This is the third article in the Urban Design Professional Practice Network (UD PPN)’s series on the evolution of the suburban retail environment. As described in the first article, the retail environment is undergoing significant changes that have resulted in a “paradigm shift” from traditional suburban shopping centers to an age of electronic marketing that supports smaller scale, but amenity-rich, village centers and streetscape environments. The article also discussed how suburban retail has gone through various cycles of development—from traditional main street retail to suburban malls, to the abandonment of retail centers, and to redeveloped village centers. The constant churn of the American economy and ever-changing technology has transformed user preferences, which has had a massive impact.

The second article in the series highlighted several projects that are in very different stages of redevelopment. The projects help to explain how different suburban retail centers have been evolving over the past decade to address the changes in electronic retail preferences.

In addition to the past decades of change associated with patterns of development, we have also witnessed changes to society caused by the recent pandemic that encouraged outdoor activity, walkability, and access to natural resources and quality open spaces. All the noted changes have highlighted the need for quality designed places and the need for “third spaces” for public gatherings. Along with the recent lifestyle preferences, they have fast-tracked the paradigm shift in the retail environment that has caused a significant and reverberating change in all sectors of the metropolitan urban pattern.

This article attempts to build upon the foundation of those previous installments to discuss some lessons learned and some basic principles for successful place-making and urban design going forward in a changing world.

Lessons from the Shift in Suburban Retail

For planners and designers there are important lessons that should be recognized as we adjust to the changes resulting from the paradigm shift. The lessons can be summed up as:

1. Traditional urban streetscape retail will be the heart and soul of small towns and villages and any development or neighborhood.

However, instead of being at the mercy of unknown economic forces, many small towns and villages now rely on Main Street programs established at the state level to assist in planning, marketing, promoting, and supporting successful efforts. For example, impressive programs can be found in:

Instead of trying to compete with main street retail environments, new and reimagined developments should look to connect to existing main street retail programs and incorporate the main street principles.

2. Traditional design skills (planning, urban design, and landscape architecture) will continue to play an important part in the success of any effort.

To attract a customer base and engage the surrounding community, retail centers will require to be unique places that people want to visit and enjoy. Quality planning and design skills will be needed as new and reimagined retail environments cope with both brick and mortar and e-commerce issues.

3. For those neighborhoods suffering from a lack of economic investment and accessibility to retail services, new energy and enthusiasm from planning and design professionals will be needed to help establish a foundation for sustainable retail growth, equitable services, and financial prosperity.

Successful programs that have established this foundation can be found in:

4. Land developers and many municipalities seem to have learned the lesson that following the federal and state investments in highway construction to new outlying green field sites that are ripe for single-use commercial/retail enclosed malls is not a successful business practice going forward.

Large enclosed and climate-controlled indoor environments are not sustainable from an environmental or energy point of view and are dependent on a customer base that has numerous new options for retail. For new and reimagined development to be successful, they have to be planned for resiliency and mixed-use opportunities that allow for change. Our previous article highlighted some of the successful conversions of dying suburban malls to mixed-use town centers as sustainable alternatives.

The conclusion that can be gleaned from this shift in focus is that single-use zoning for large-scale suburban shopping malls seems to have been handily rejected in favor of the smaller-scale retail environments that include mixed-use zoning, quality streetscapes, quality amenity spaces, and the inclusion of “third spaces” for fostering community. Such shifts in planning and design methodology can be realized in traditional small-town America, in traditionally neglected and/or disadvantaged neighborhoods, and in newer communities sometimes under the banner and design guidelines of New Urbanism.

Car Free NYC: Earth Day 2017, Herald Square / image: New York City Department of Transportation via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Impacts on Landscape Architects and Urban Design

For planners, landscape architects, designers, architects, and engineers, this new focus has already started and has had a profound impact on professional practice. The demand for planners and designers who have the skills to create and implement the unique qualities that make existing neighborhood and new retail environments successful will continue to expand. To be successful in this new shift in practice environment, there are several changes in perspective that should be recognized:

A. Successful retail environments cannot rely on the traditional transportation planning solutions of the middle to the late 20th century such as more highway-only construction and roadway widenings that are designed solely to increase car capacity. Planners and designers will need to coordinate with transportation officials to promote transportation solutions that work at the local neighborhood and streetscape level. Such solutions should incorporate complete streets principles, shared parking, full ADA accessibility, and separated pedestrian/bike paths and trails.

Local or city streets especially, should be designed using the standards and guidelines of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) over those put forth by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). It would be ideal if design concepts promoting urban boulevards and narrow local streets with small blocks could be developed that provide safe and efficient transportation while also providing for many of the other amenities needed for successful neighborhood retail.

B. Successful retail environments cannot rely on traditional single-use zoning that plops commercial and retail into an expansive bubble requiring large amounts of land devoted to parking lots, environmental mitigation, water management, and infrastructure. Planners and designers will need to coordinate with local government officials to encourage mixed-use zoning, or special- use zoning districts that encourage the design of small village-type development clusters that are reliant on a central retail streetscape with upper-level residential uses and are context-sensitive to the adjacent development patterns. This approach can also be used in existing traditional neighborhoods to encourage building owners to realize the potential economic success that can be realized with additional land use connections combined with placemaking solutions.

C. Successful retail environments cannot always rely only on new development and new buildings. Planners and designers will need to have the insight to see the economic and environmental benefits of existing buildings, especially those that have historic or cultural significance. Historic preservation will play an important part in the restoration, rehabilitation, and re-use of existing neighborhood scale buildings and storefronts. Planners and designers should embrace the opportunities that preservation and rehabilitation bring to the design of existing and proposed retail environments. This change in perspective can become a double reward when combined with other sustainability factors. Historic buildings often provide the placemaking backbone and uniqueness for a particular district.

D. Successful retail environments will need to promote both strong economic feasibility numbers and strong environmental values. They will need to indicate that they not only have a solid foundation in marketing and financial spreadsheets, but also have been designed to incorporate low carbon solutions, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve water and energy resources, modulate temperature and heat, foster a culture of sustainability, and provide for a wide range of interests by various economic and social populations.

E. Successful retail environments will need to exceed basic site environmental solutions, especially for large scale developments. Utilizing wholistic environmental strategies vs massive engineering approaches will be more cost-effective and have a greater impact for the long-term success of these sites. Integrated environmental approaches can also make these developments resilient to climate change and save on long term maintenance costs. From reducing carbon emissions, increasing carbon sequestration, integrating green and blue infrastructure, supporting ecosystem habitats, and promoting biodiversity a development can prepare for long term success and environmental resiliency.

F. Successful retail environments will ultimately need to provide for all the above factors and then meet the additional criteria for making quality places that various populations want to visit and spend time in. This challenge can be referred to as the ultimate challenge for planners and designers practicing as urban designers. It can be referenced as the important criteria of placemaking from an urban design point of view explained in the following comparison chart:

In summary, there are many changes in perspective that planners and designers will need to recognize as urban designers to successfully address this new shift in the retail environment economy and to provide for quality solutions in the re-calibrated retail environment. Most importantly, planners and designers—as landscape architects and urban designers—will need to make that final adjustment toward placemaking to craft special places and spaces that are safe, healthy, attractive, and sustainable from an economic and environmental point of view, and that thereby become the new quality retail spaces that define the re-calibrated retail environment.

This post was edited by Urban Design PPN co-chair Sara Hadavi, ASLA.

Daniel Straub, PLA, ASLA, AIP, LEED AP, is an accomplished urban planner, licensed landscape architect, and accredited LEED professional with over thirty-five years of project experience in master planning, streetscape design and green infrastructure, urban design, and landscape architecture in both the public and private sectors. He concentrates on bridging the gap between large scale planning/visioning efforts, or concept design, and the more detail-scale design solutions that can be implemented, are cost effective, and that meet sustainability criteria. He currently works with the National Park Service on special projects including cultural landscape projects.

Dan has served as the professional representative to the Urban Design Advisory Committee in Alexandria, the Executive Committee of MDASLA (Secretary and Treasurer), and as a member of AIA/Cleveland-Regional Urban Design Assistance Team. He has also served as a volunteer at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, the American Horticulture Society, Design DC, and currently is a member of the committee to Save River Farm, which has received awards from the Virginia Garden Club and the Potomac Chapter of ASLA. He previously won an AIA Urban Design Competition for the 9th Street Mall in Miami with a longtime colleague from Houston.

Daniel Ashworth, Jr., PLA, ASLA, AICP, is a Senior Landscape Architect and Lead Designer at England, Thims, & Miller (ETM) in Jacksonville, Florida. He possesses nearly 20 years of experience in landscape architecture, planning, and urban design. His expertise includes parks & public spaces, trails & greenways, complete streets & streetscape design, construction documentation, and project management. In his landscape & urban design work, Daniel possesses the ability to see urban spaces as performing multiple functions, including meeting larger community development goals, increasing social interaction, leveraging environmental and health benefits, revealing the history and stories of a place, and adding beauty to cities and neighborhoods. Daniel’s work has involved large-scale and high-level conceptual planning down to the individual details of design including the finishes, furnishings, and planting selections on both public and private projects.

In addition to his professional work, Daniel is a member of ASLA (including the Urban Design PPN leadership team), APA, and he is an Urbanist member of the CNU. Daniel is heavily involved in the local Jacksonville community, serving on the Board of Directors for his neighborhood, Historic Springfield, and serving on various local committees related to parks, design, and infrastructure.

Lauren Patterson, PLA, ASLA, is a Landscape Architect and Planner with over 10 years of experience leading projects from large scale regional planning initiatives to detailed immersive designs. She is a Planning and Design Project Manager at VHB in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her work focuses on evidence-based design throughout all phases of a project that allows her to meet community and client needs. She has worked on a wide variety of projects throughout the United States and is involved in a variety of outreach and advocacy for smart planning and design initiatives throughout the country.

One thought on “Re-Calibration of the Retail Environment: The Expanded Role of Landscape Architects and Implications on Urban Design

  1. Ken Natoli September 28, 2023 / 1:52 pm

    Very good stuff. Don’t forget about the importance of connectivity to, from, and between neighborhoods to pedestrian friendly retail/mixed use places which is essential to sustainable, livable communities! (Which Landscape Architects should be out front in the planning and design of these ‘better places’ to live, work, play, etc.

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