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.

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Evolution and Re-Calibration of the Typical Suburban Retail Environment

by John Dempsey, ASLA, and Daniel Straub, ASLA

North Dekalb Mall, North Decatur, Georgia / image: Casey Lovegrove on Unsplash

The retail environment in America has a complex history as it includes a broad range of activities from the small-scale local storefront in an urban neighborhood to the large-scale activity of a suburban shopping mall. This article focuses on the complex changes associated with the suburban shopping malls and their impact on urban framework and design, and draws on relative comparisons to the history and relative success of traditional main street retail as well.

Framing the American Dream: Auto Ownership, Mobility, and Suburban Growth

During the period after World War II, factors such as increased manufacturing, the GI Bill, and federal loan programs facilitated the migration to single-family homes and private automobiles. Since its inception in the 1950s, American suburban malls became an emblematic part of the booming expansion of the geographic extent of large-scale suburbia. This transformation was in part made possible by the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act (1956). The highway investments permitted a massive road-building program to support access to inexpensive land that led to increased opportunities to build large-scale subdivisions. Many of the new subdivisions required easy access to goods, services, and entertainment so they typically included commercial mall development or were located near new suburban malls. Essentially, the suburban mall became the new town square to eat, shop, gather, and converse.

However, not all American citizens participated equally. The mass exodus of primarily white households from cities to the outlying suburbs revealed inequitable prosperity. The new suburban communities were legally structured to limit the emigration of poor and non-white residents by drafting restrictive zoning practices that would prevent lower middle-class Americans from purchasing single-family houses in the suburbs. As a consequence, the mass movement of middle-income households from many inner-city neighborhoods encouraged the similar movement of many businesses to suburban locations. This resulted in a major transformation of many cities anchored by main streets or downtown retail.

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Public Space in Flux: Shaping the Built Environment of the Future

Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, TX, on April, 10, 2020 / image: Taner Ozdil

­As an integral part of community life, public space is essential to the social, physical, mental, and economic health of cities. From urban plazas and community parks to city sidewalks and corners, public space creates a collective sense of community and allows for enhanced social inclusion, civic participation, sense of belonging, and recreation.

But what happens when we’re told that those spaces are no longer safe? Since March 2020, COVID-19 has challenged the civic right to public space and connection, creating a flux in access and experience that will clearly have long-lasting impacts on how landscape architects work within the public realm. As we step out of initial knee-jerk reactions and into yet another wave, what is the role of urban design within the context of this “new normal”?

To see how different cities are responding and how firms and practitioners are adapting and exploring innovative ways to leverage the pandemic and shape the built environment of the future, we asked a cross section of Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) members to share their pandemic experiences and ways in which the industry is rethinking the approach to public space design.

Maren McBride, ASLA — Seattle, WA/Vancouver, BC

In both Seattle and Vancouver, it has been inspiring to see a clear shift in the way that communities have collectively, and proactively, embraced public space—no longer seen as something nice to have, but essential to health and wellbeing. It’s a strong reminder of the incredible responsibility we have, as landscape architects, to create an equitable, sustainable, and resilient public realm that fosters human connection and joy, even in times of crisis.

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