AIA Awards


November 20, 2003

12 keys to creating authentic people places

  • Real urban villages should reflect their communities

    Juanita Village
    Photo by Eduardo Calderon
    Juanita Village, a pedestrian-oriented redevelopment in Kirkland, offers new neighborhood destinations within walking distance.

    Across the country, suburban as well as urban communities are embracing a new development model. Each is striving to create mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly places — villages, town centers, commons, main streets — with their own unique stamp in a veritable frenzy of “place making.”

    The roots of this development trend are multifaceted: growth management and densification, a reaction to super-fast life styles devoid of the social interactions that build community, market demand for walkable communities over auto-dependent suburbias, and well-traveled baby boomer and echo boomer's familiarity with global mixed-use models. All of these influences culminate in a community's desire to increase its economic tax base while controlling growth with higher density development.

    Considering what the 1950s and 1960s dealt us in suburban sprawl and urban renewal, on the whole this phenomenon is welcome. But how do you create a real place that is a reflection of an individual community and its unique values and not just another urban village wanna-be? How do you shape a destination that people are attracted to time and again? How do you make it authentic?

    In public visioning meetings for local projects like Juanita Village, Issaquah Highlands, University Place Town Center and Burien Town Square, citizens and public officials talk about the kinds of spaces and places they admire. They desire hip, mixed-use destinations that offer not just a place, but promise an experience. They aspire to successful urban models built over time like the Pike Place Market, Fremont, Yaletown and the Pearl District. But they are also attracted to ambitious new neighborhoods like Santana Row in San Jose, Calif., RiverPlace in Portland, and Addison Circle in Texas. These developments were designed to create the ambiance and vitality of the older mixed-use urban neighborhood models noted above.

    Rediscovered neighborhoods have taken advantage of their rich history, adaptively reusing their great stock of architectural raw materials and inserting a new urbanity, to become regional destinations. They have a story to tell, and it is easy to see why people love them. They are sensual places teeming with human interaction. They drip with character and creativity. They embody a sense of community that you can literally smell and taste.

    These places resonate with our desire to eat and hang out, shop, and someday live there!

    A vast majority of the Northwest's towns and cities don't have the advantages of critical mass of real estate and density, rich historic building fabric, or decades of planning and economic development.

    Newly incorporated cities such as University Place have ambitious plans to build town centers that will become the heart and soul of their communities. Whole new residential communities such as Issaquah Highlands are on the threshold of creating innovative multi-block mixed-use towns.

    These are imaginative developments — each with their own mix of uses, civic role and development challenges — with the desire to create a destination when there is no there, there!

    But for this new breed of visionary communities, striving to create their own models of higher density mixed-use neighborhood communities totally from scratch, there are some rules of thumb. Truly authentic places contain a combination of these characteristics and strategies:

    1. Mix it up

     University Village
    Photo by Eckert & Eckert
    An interactive fountain at University Village is just one of the myriad pedestrian amenities where shoppers are invited to linger and play.

    The more uses, the better. A mix of uses is more complicated to create, fund and operate successfully, but the more diversity of uses, the more real it will feel, look and act. Remember “mixed-use” means at least three, not including parking. One of the three uses should be housing, hopefully a variety of housing categories.

    2. Tell me a story

    Storytelling is critical for creating place, whether it is based on the community's history, or a totally new vision of what it wants to be. The story reflects the core values and vision of the community, and adhering to it guides all parties in the creation of the place.

    3. Howdy neighbor

    Remember, you are creating a neighborhood and that takes time, sweat and passion. Social interaction takes place in many forms through porches, cafes, community meeting spaces, parks, civic spaces, schools or day-care, and markets. Work hard to include a variety of these places of community gathering in your design.

    4. Secret identity

    It is no secret that the most successful places have a strong sense of identity. Identity of place is created on a macro and a micro level, from the physical built environment to the marketing plan. And it's not just about the look of the place or the graphic symbols used for branding and signage. It's about the way people talk about your neighborhood and what they tell each other.

    5. Sixth senses

    Plan for places and spaces that engage all of a person's senses. The aroma and visual presentation that draws you into a great bakery or cafe. The sound of bells that mark the passage of time. The romance of light dancing on the water of a playful fountain. The bright textures of a mosaic tile sculpture. The history relived in an interpretive art piece.

    6. Pedestrians first

    To create a real neighborhood, walkable communities are critical. Plan intelligently for the automobile, bike and transit, but always design so the pedestrian has the upper hand and feels comfortable, confident and safe navigating the community.

    7. Discovery

     cafe screen wall detail
    Photo by Eckert & Eckert
    A cafe screen wall detail at University Village helps create a compelling pedestrian environment.

    Great places make you feel like a kid again — exploring quirky alleys, the layers of detail, the one-of-a-kind retail shop, the interactive fountain that begs you to walk through, the hidden mews that becomes your secret place to meet. The process of discovery is not a one-time event. The design of your neighborhood should be compelling enough for you to discover new experiences each time you visit. And it should naturally make you want to tell not only your friends, but also total strangers, about how great a place it is.

    8. Passion play

    What is your community's passion? If theater is it, include places and spaces for that to happen both in a planned and a serendipitous way. If it is gardening, include year round opportunities for floral celebration, from your choice of retail tenants to the way the public spaces are planted. Integrate the passion from the micro to the macro level.

    9. Artistic license

    Integration of art is an art in and of itself. Art connects people with places and with each other. Start from the beginning with a vision, a plan and an adequate budget. Using professional, local artists can strengthen community ties. Quality art that engages children is always a home run.

    10. GRIT: Great Retail is Theater

    Work hard to include unique, local retailers and restaurants. Nothing kills authenticity faster than a strict diet of the same national or regional retailers that you see at every life-style center or mall around the country.

    11. Find your way

    Wayfinding signage is critical to both the functional and aesthetic success of your neighborhood community. Hire a professional with exceptional graphic and environmental design skills.

    12. Diversity

    Plan to serve many sectors of society in age, demographic background, social and sexual orientation, and ethnic background. Places that attract only one or two demographic groups can be unnatural and boring.

    “Live work and play” is already an overused and under-delivered mantra. To make your development authentic and unique to your community, and desirable to visitors, go straight to the heart of the human experience. Build in the things that fill people with pleasure, that make an emotional connection.

    Design with more than the physical in mind. Embrace a new mantra — “live, work, play and emote.”

    Bill Gaylord, AIA, is a principal at GGLO, a Seattle-based firm specializing in mixed-use projects that create community, elevating the quality and spirit of life.

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