by Taner R. Özdil, Ph.D., ASLA
Urban design is an interdisciplinary field of study and area of practice concerned with the architectural form, the relationship between the buildings and urban landscapes, and the pedestrian realm created within. The field encompasses landscape architecture, architecture, city planning, development, real estate, as well as many others. It is consumed by the creation, design, and management of the built environment in an urban context. Beyond its creative, spatial, and aesthetic roots (Sitte 1965 ), urban design is an evidence-based activity requiring scientific and practical knowledge responding to the evolving nature of human settlements. It is concerned with social, economic, and environmental as well and aesthetic knowledge, ideals, and principles inherent to various project typologies (Ozdil 2008 & 2016, Krieger & Saunders 2009, Carmona 2016, Lang 2017).
Mixed-use developments and centers are considered by a few as one of the “hottest” urban design project typologies that emerged within the past few decades in Sunbelt cities, if not in North America. Their roots can primarily be attributed to the traditional cores of cities, towns, villages, or neighborhoods across the world, and Main Streets and Commercial Business Districts, and perhaps to pedestrian malls (starting with Kalamazoo, Michigan) in the United States. Although they are relatively new and favored project typologies and urban design phenomena that introduce density, diversity, and/or urban living conditions to sprawling metropolitan regions, they have also been under scrutiny for their trendy and market-driven development strategies (Rowley 1996, Hine, 2006, Tesso 2013).
Mixed-use developments and centers have significant economic, environmental, and social impacts (DeLisle & Grissom 2013, Hughen & Read 2016, Podeszwa 2019, Zagow 2022) while encouraging multicentric development patterns in 21st-century cities requiring systematic understanding, documentation, and examination. Other than numerous project reviews and case studies on well-to-do projects, research is scarce on mixed-use developments and centers (Sternberg 2000). There is relatively limited empirical knowledge available about the value and the impact mixed-use environments generate with their urban design strategies (see, for example, Minecozzi 2023 ; Ozdil 2008; Jerke et al. 2008; McIndoe et al. 2005).
More importantly, there is a void in consistent definition and nomenclature to study their contributions to the built environment, placemaking, and pedestrian realm, especially within the context of the landscape architecture profession. This brief review is an attempt to establish a consistent definition, framework, and preliminary know-how regarding mixed-used developments/centers by building on the author’s research, especially in North Texas (VNT 2010).
What is Mixed-Use?
Mixed-use developments are typically characterized by three or more significant uses (such as retail/entertainment, office, residential, hotel, or civic/cultural/recreation) that mutually support one another. They typically have significant functional and physical integration of project components and uses, including the uninterrupted pedestrian realm. These developments are strategized and envisioned in conformance with a coherent plan that frequently stipulates the type and scale of uses, permitted densities, and related items (Witherspoon & Abbett 1976). The definition includes but is not limited to live, work, and play/entertainment.
The physical configuration of mixed-use developments and centers is typically categorized by their vertical and horizontal arrangement of uses. While vertical mixed-use developments contain a range of uses in a single building or a building complex, horizontal mixed-use developments are typically made up of single-use buildings within a planned development or a traditional center with mixed-use characteristics.
The configuration of mixed-use developments and centers falls into four broad categories (Schwanke et al. 2003, Ozdil et al. 2008).
- Mixed-use Building/Tower typically refers to a single building that has three or more uses for greater efficiency and connections while optimizing the use of its footprint.
- Multi-tower Structure typically refers to integrated buildings that are well connected (or attached), and share a plaza/atrium, pedestrian connectors, and/or parking where the uses are clustered in a building complex.
- Mixed-use Center, which may be named differently due to their functions or marketing strategies by stakeholders, commonly refer to functional and physical integration of various uses and development components (and thus a relatively intensive use of land), including open/green space system, and uninterrupted pedestrian network, and public realm.
- Traditional (Historic) Town Center refers to historic cores of the cities, towns, or neighborhoods planned and built to provide a central area where the core economic and social functions and activities of the community takes place. These areas or districts, on most occasions, house multiple uses (horizontal or vertical) with a designated boundary to protect, develop, redevelop, enhance, or manage to elongate their functions as the heart of the communities they are part of. This category includes but is not limited to main street districts, central business districts, neighborhood commercial zones, historic districts, and special districts (i.e., urban villages).
While these configurations are not mutually exclusive, and different categories may exist within the physical realm of one another, they help establish urban design framework in both practice and academia (see below for sample North Texas sites).
In addition to physical configuration, mixed-use developments and centers have several typologies with different characteristics that emerge under the categories highlighted above. They may come under many names, such as Mixed-use Development, Mixed-use Center, New Town Center, Transit-Oriented Development or District, Urban Village, Town Square or Center, Urban Village, Lifestyle Center, Neighborhood Centers, Main Street Districts, Historic Districts, Entertainment Districts, Art or Design Districts, and Employment Centers, to name a few. The naming conventions chosen for these developments are typically reflections of the characteristics desired by the stakeholders as well as the market dynamics and needs shaping them. These typologies also allude to detailed characteristics of the critical uses that exist in these developments (i.e., entertainment, lifestyle, or transit) as well as to the presence of the public and private realms. These typologies suggest the location or scale of the development (i.e., neighborhood, village, or town) within the broader context of cities and regions. While these names and typologies are not exhaustive, they are commonly used by stakeholders to describe projects to potential users or ‘customers.’
Why Do Mixed-Use Projects Matter?
As discussed in part in the beginning of this article, the idea of mixed-use buildings, developments, and centers was informed by historic structures and centers of commerce, traditional cores of cities, towns, and neighborhoods, and European counterparts as precedents. While some mixed-use projects take advantage of its age-old historic building(s), identity, form, and urban morphology, newer mixed-use buildings, structures, developments, and centers try to achieve ‘good’ urban design by acquiring, mimicking, or combining the synthesized qualities (such as streetscapes, open spaces, plazas, etc.) of various traditional centers, European precedents, as well as contemporary living choices. It also looks like traditional centers seem to be a product of intentional diversification through responsiveness to demography, commerce, housing, and public uses whereas new mixed-use buildings, structure, developments, and centers seem to achieve this by providing real estate products primarily for current demand and niche markets with concerted urban design integration.
Although the number and typologies of mixed-use buildings, structures, developments, and centers have been exponentially increasing to accommodate 21st-century American cities’ appetite for density, development, lifestyle, and perhaps consumerism, they have been one of the trendiest product outcomes of the choices we collectively make as urban inhabitants. When they are planned, designed, built, and managed with evidence-based principles, know-how, rigor, and quality, they generate positive pedestrian experiences as well as places for nature with their recognizable urban design framework.
Such underlying attributes and features of mixed-use projects bring landscape architecture professional services to the forefront among other urban design-contributing fields. Multiple additional roles can be carved out for urban design-minded landscape architects beyond their ability to integrate natural systems, solve environmental issues (i.e., climate, heat islands, and stormwater management) and human conditions and needs in an urban context. While some of us are equipped to lead transdisciplinary urban design teams to shape visionary mixed-use projects by capitalizing on our inherent knowledge in site planning and designing urban form and morphology, others are well equipped to bring pedestrian activity and life into these projects by bringing a variety of uses and green and open spaces as major project components to enhance the vitality of the built environment. The more responsive these project typologies are to the urban landscape, people’s evolving needs and interests, and contemporary placemaking principles, with the help of landscape architects, the more functional and meaningful they become as part of the new urban realm.
In conclusion, this brief introduction reviewed mixed-use definitions, configurations, and typologies as well as key attributes of design characteristics with the intent to inform landscape architects about their economic, environmental, social, and aesthetic implications in our repertoire of project typologies in growing cities and regions. While the implications of such projects are yet to be fully documented, contributing to a multicentric city with pedestrian islands across urban regions is in part landscape architects’ role and duty to part in, if not lead them, from their ideation to realization, in order to build an urban landscape continuum. It is also essential to study mixed-use environments with multi-disciplinary participation so that they can be planned and designed beyond real-estate products. Given the growth expected in urbanizing areas, the emphasis on the public realm in today’s cities, and the emphasis specifically given to the mixed-use structures, developments, and centers in planning future urban regions in our times, comprehensive understanding and visioning of these projects by multidisciplinary teams including landscape architecture is key to conveying lasting urban vitality.
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Taner R. Özdil, Ph.D., ASLA, is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Arlington. He is also an Officer and Past Co-Chair of the ASLA Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN), 2024 CELA Theme Track “Taking Action: Making Change” Co-Chair, and Past Vice President for Research and Creative Scholarship for the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).