Reshaping Cities for Present-Day Populations

The demographic changes of the last few years give city planners and urban designers an opportunity to reimagine how public spaces can most effectively promote public health, wellbeing, and equity.

4 minute read

February 23, 2023, 6:00 AM PST

By Douglas C. Smith

Washington Square Park, New York City

Jean-Christophe BENOIST / Washington Square Park, New York City

Two years into the new decade, a global pandemic brought with it a renewed interest in public health and a reminder of the role of public spaces in the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of communities. People are inspiring one another to embrace open spaces and outdoor activities while reconfiguring their routines to ensure a more holistic approach to their mental, social, emotional, and physical health. This renewed focus on wellness has inspired developers and government agencies to take a deeper look at the way cities use space, engaging with landscape architects and planners to meet the current and future needs of residents. 

Due to a flight from urban environments in 2020, major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston reportedly lost more than 1 million residents, while second-tier cities such as Raleigh, Dallas, Tampa, and Denver attracted new residents and businesses. These trends provided landscape architects with opportunities to address improvements to existing neighborhoods and take on new infill development with a greater focus on social and environmental connectivity.

Consider Asheville, North Carolina. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city had a population of 94,067 in 2021, an increase of just over 1,000 from early 2020. In the city’s downtown, a master planning effort is underway to develop the Hill Street neighborhood through a mix of land uses and housing types, including the addition of more than 300 new multi-family units and an interconnected pedestrian system that invites locals to walk along the streets and explore community amenities. The project establishes settings for sociability, including a community center, an activity center, educational institutions, and preserved open space.

What Hill Street and other urban neighborhoods undergoing similar transformations offer is a sense of place, where residents feel safe and engaged with their surroundings, nature, and one another. Such forward-thinking community designs highlight the use of public parks, natural preservation areas, and amenity-rich streets to encourage socialization and recreation. Designers are encouraged to offer creative and bespoke site furnishings and elements such as water features and art installations.

Repurposing existing development is another trend reshaping urban areas. Existing greyfield and brownfield sites are being remediated or modified to create welcoming public realm spaces. The Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for instance, is being reimagined as a modern lifestyle center. Inclusive of shopping, dining, and multi-family housing, the new vision incorporates a variety of plazas, promenades, and seating nooks that invite people to settle in, relax, and socialize. With input from a team of designers, the services of the revitalized mall now reach beyond the site to nearby streets and neighborhoods, creating a new urban district near the Atlantic Ocean that provides a sense of place for residents, neighbors, and visitors alike.

Similarly, The Well at the former Military Circle Mall in Norfolk, Virginia, was transformed into an inviting mixed-use community with a naturalized open space park designed to be as appealing to locals as Central Park is to New Yorkers. The overall design of the outdoor spaces brings a sense of urban vibrancy through enhanced offerings that address the current and future needs of multiple generations, including roads shaded with live oaks, grand lawns framing a lake that is a magnet for kayakers and paddle boarders, and trails that connect throughout. The Well’s landscape supports long-term sustainability with food gardens, tree hammocks, and native planting zones designed to offset the development’s carbon footprint and reduce water runoff.

The need for enhanced community common spaces that focus on connectivity, walkability, and nature conservation is quite strong in the urban housing and development market, with all signs pointing to a continuation of this trend. Walking trails, natural areas, and structured parks are now at the top of the wish list for residents of urban and suburban communities. At the same time, trends toward denser forms of housing will continue to define and shape neighborhoods and communities. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home ownership affordability, escalating construction costs, and supply chain challenges are contributing to several thousand apartments being development over the next five years.

With more people working remotely and having more options for where to live, suburban locations are also experiencing renewed interest. This presents opportunities for developers to reenvision and enhance suburban hubs with an urban-style fabric while enhancing access to open space and nature.

Renewed interest in engagement with open space and natural areas makes site analysis and environmental data capture an increasingly important part of the community planning process. Landscape architects and planners consider conditions from a broad systems perspective, including a wide range of contextual influences, both within a study boundary and beyond, to make informed decisions and recommendations. 

As urban areas continue to evolve, it is imperative for the multidisciplinary teams involved to find innovative solutions that enhance city spaces and meet consumer demand. As more people turn toward togetherness and wellness, all sides must be ready to collaborate to reach the best solutions.

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