New Urbanism = The Mall For The Next Generation

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It was a place you visited on a Saturday as a teenager, hanging out with friends and popping into stores.  Maybe now it’s the place you go after work to pick up a birthday gift for a friend, a new outfit for next weekend’s outing, or simply because you’re sniffing for sales.

That’s right, I’m talking about your local mall.  That place you park your car and walk.  And walk.  And walk some more.  In fact, studies show the average mall visitor walks over a mile, with a large percentage walking several miles.  People like the comfort, convenience and even the adventure of walking the mall, visiting stores and finding that must-have item on sale.  They like having restaurants of all kinds, from fast food to fine dining, as options while they are shopping.  More malls are also adding entertainment options like mini-golf and go karts, to name a couple.

The concepts behind “New Urbanism,” or the “urban design movement which promotes environmentally friendly habits by creating walkable neighborhoods containing a wide range of housing and job types,” is simply taking the best things people like about malls and melding them with an urban living environment.  When you think about it, malls really are the suburban response to the traditionally walkable element of a thriving urban center.  Now cities are returning the favor, adding mall amenities into new downtown design concepts.

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In catering to a younger generation that is moving back toward urban environments with a desire to live, work and shop in the same area, cities are scrambling to revitalize neighborhoods to, in essence, make them a little more like suburban malls, with one obvious difference… local retailers, restaurants and entertainment venues instead of big box stores and chains.  For example, small cities like Schenectady, Troy, Hudson and Geneva have all succeeded in creating downtowns with living space, retail, entertainment, dining and nightlife in an area no greater than a large mall, with an emphasis on walkability… and rarely if ever in these urban centers will you see anything other than locally owned businesses.  “Shop local” environments are something today’s young professionals demand, and for good reason… they keep profits closer to home, financially fueling communities instead of stripping them.

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And, like malls, strategic planning of how to move people about, especially when they won’t be using a car, is key to the success of any urban environment.  Walkability in cities isn’t just about bigger sidewalks and recognizable crosswalks… it’s about creating an environment that people want to explore on foot.  New higher-end shopping malls are complete with greenspace, places to relax with a cup of coffee, benches, couches, drinking fountains, even art installations.  These “lifestyle malls” aren’t just visually appealing, they have transformed shopping from strictly a retail venture to a “shopping experience” by creating more of a community center than just a place to buy clothing.

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New Urbanism follows the same path, with an emphasis on creating spaces that don’t just make it easy to walk, shop, eat and drink, they make it safe and enjoyable as well.  We often don’t realize why we walk down one street and not another, but mall designers and urban planners do.  New Urbanism (often called “Tactical Urbanism), just like mall design, combines math with attention to aesthetic detail to draw you in and make you feel good about being there.

Finally, the key element in creating a true walkable downtown is, like malls, the ability to park your car and leave it while you navigate your way on foot.  For the growing population that is choosing to live downtown, some may be able to skip the car altogether and walk, bike or take public transit to the workplace, shopping center, entertainment venue or dining destination.  Finding the right balance between adequate car parking space while maintaining an inviting, aesthetically pleasing city street is one of the biggest challenges for urban designers.  On street parking is always best, surface parking lots are extremely unattractive to the average person (we don’t always realize this but walk through a city and you’ll see what I mean), plus they take up valuable space that could otherwise be creating revenue instead of absorbing it.  The same is true for parking garages, which are displeasing to the eye AND extremely expensive to maintain and patrol (these garages can be breeding grounds for crime).

If you’re one of those people who don’t fully understand what New Urbanism is, consider this a quick and simple introduction.  Imagine if your city was like an outdoor mall, only you could work there, play there, eat and drink there, own a business there… you could buy from your neighbor and know your money was going to stay in your community… the possibilities are endless when we focus on what makes our cities great places to be.

Every city has challenges.  Every city has resources.  The key is to combine some of the concepts of New Urbanism with what makes your community vibrant and unique.  Try this as you walk down your street and watch the possibilities unfold in front of you!