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7 big ideas for revitalizing the urban realm

September 15, 2022

By Jordan Block

Applying people-centered design to open spaces helps create places people want to be

This article first appeared as “Revitalizing the urban realm” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 15.

Working from home has inspired us to think about open space and our cities in different ways. But cities are complex creatures. What are some approaches we can take forward to ensure our cities thrive?

Here is a look at seven ways to remake our cities for people.

1. Reclaim space for people

Connection is important to people. And public open spaces are valuable as democratic places where we can connect with each other. Recent events have shown us there is a demand for more and better-quality urban space, and that we critically lack a diversity of public space in cities.

However, urban cores are where we can least afford to buy land, so we must get creative. 

Brighton Boulevard in Denver, Colorado, features 1.7 miles of protected cycle track, new pedestrian amenities, 300 new street trees, and over 28,000 square feet of LID stormwater drainage infrastructure.

City streets are our largest untapped resource of publicly owned space. They present an opportunity for us to reclaim space for recreation, wellness, and social connection―not just getting around. In urban cores around the world, communities undertook reclamation experiments that created momentum in this direction and showed people the hidden potential in streets. Though many of these installations are temporary, they have a lot to teach us and should influence the way we design streetscapes going forward.

2. Multidimensional design

Our ever-diminishing municipal budgets have proven that every design intervention must do more than one thing. We simply cannot afford single-use infrastructure or single-use places anymore.

For our recent revitalization of Brighton Boulevard in Denver, Colorado, the design team was challenged to create a place that could stand on its own as a neighborhood amenity providing comfortable space for biking, walking, resting, and observing while also fulfilling its role as a major freight corridor. Adding to the complexity, we had to redevelop this industrial artery to perform significant stormwater management.

It’s not just a street: it’s a linear park, a critical piece of infrastructure, and a catalyst for future development.

City streets are our largest untapped resource of publicly owned space. They present an opportunity for us to reclaim space for recreation, wellness, and social connection―not just getting around.

3. Bigger isn’t always better

Think about equity and sense of ownership. The idea of big open or green space can be attractive.

But we shouldn’t judge parks or plazas on size alone, we should look at equitable access. How do we create the right spaces for the community? Where do people live and what’s available there? How will the open spaces reflect their community and culture? We need to create spaces that the diversity and density of population will support.

All successful open spaces instill a sense of ownership and passion in the people that live or work nearby. This sense of ownership over the public realm ensures that people will occupy it, use it, keep an eye on it, and make sure it is maintained. Limited but packed open space is a better indicator of community strength than larger tracts of underused space.

4. Make it intuitive, comfortable to use, and connect it

Thoughtful design can make or break public spaces in urban cores. It often comes down to a few key principles:

  • Are they intuitive and comfortable to use?
  • Are they inviting and accessible to all people?
  • Are they embedded in the city’s fabric and surrounded by uses that will give them life all day long?

The connections between the public space, people, and context are often more important than the design of the space itself. However, great design and thoughtful attention to detail will elevate a good open space to one that is iconic and beloved.

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Brighton Boulevard in Denver.

5. Design to let life happen

Of course, there are highly designed spaces that are attractive, interesting, and successful. But we shouldn’t forget that often the most successful open spaces in the public realm are flexible, open-ended places where the users define their experience.

Chicago’s Millennium Park has Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (“The Bean”) and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, and it draws tens of thousands of people. These attractions work because they’re inviting and engage the public but also because they offer a big platform for human activity. The rest of the park is a mix of programmed space and recreation but still leaves lots of room for the user to fill in.

We need to design places that act as great backdrops and platforms, open-ended spaces where life can happen. Success of these places, however, depends on the intensity and density of people and uses to support them.

6. Create places for people, not just tourists

Over the past decade the installation of large entertainment uses, such as minor league baseball stadiums, in downtown cores has emerged as a major trend in urban revitalization. People visit entertainment districts, have fun, then go away and do something else. Successful urban space must be more dynamic and multidimensional.

The recently completed McGregor Square in Denver finds that critical balance between being a component of this large entertainment need—in this case a gateway and gathering space for the Major League Baseball stadium next door—and, equally importantly, as an extension of the great fabric of its neighborhood. McGregor Square’s hotel, its homes, its office spaces, and its dynamic uses make it a component of the city. And it features a public realm piece that’s flexible and open for general use and available for both programmed and private uses. 

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McGregor Square connects the Colorado Rockies ballpark to the surrounding neighborhood. The public plaza is a year-round gathering place for a variety of events.

If you create a place that’s purely for entertainment and tourists, then that’s all it will ever be. However, when you design a place for the people within that community—the people who live and work around those spaces—the tourists will come, too. If it’s well loved by the people who live there, it’s going to be well loved by visitors, too.

7. Design for health and wellness

Recently, Brenda Bush-Moline, Stantec’s global health sector leader, wrote about the need for design to reorient toward a holistic vision of an equitable healthy community. Likewise, we need to talk about making health and wellness a part of every design decision when working toward a cohesive urban environment.

Today, there is a lot of great research and design for health and wellness in buildings, interiors, and landscape design, but it is critical that we integrate this same thinking into the design of large urban places. This is especially true when we are designing new districts or large developments from the ground up. When we control all aspects of design, there is no excuse to get it wrong. We know that textures, colors, materials, and the way we experience space can have a direct impact on our perception and health. We can apply a data and evidence-based approach to health and wellness at every level in urban development. It’s going to require us to connect brilliant healthcare thinkers, landscape architects, architects, engineers, urban designers, and many other others to truly understand the impact of our design decisions on the health of the people who use our spaces.

As designers, we bear the burden of creating places that have legacy, that endure and become cornerstones for the community. We have the responsibility and the duty to get it right.

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  • Jordan Block

    Jordan Block is an urban designer with experience in master planning of large sites, landscape design, urban mobility, civic and recreation design and urban planning policy.

    Contact Jordan
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