04 April 2019

How to apply urban design and placemaking alongside commercial mixed-use tactics to deliver new style destinations.

For our latest opinion piece, Simon Bee Managing Director, Global Design at Benoy explores how a good urban design framework can encourage an intelligent mix of uses, elevating the entire retail experience. 

Across the world, Benoy’s designers are demonstrating a pioneering approach to the creation of retail destinations and the regeneration of major urban centres. We are well known for delivering iconic and successful solutions from London to Singapore. Retail is undoubtedly one of the prime generators of value and footfall in urban regeneration and the right retail strategy, combined with a visionary approach to urban design, will always produce a strong and valuable catalyst to a programme of urban renewal. 

In recent years there has been a reaction against the inward looking first generation” retail malls which turn their backs on their surroundings. Successful modern shopping centres are far more extrovert, with solutions which actively seek to externalise facades in a sustainable manner, and forge new links with the surrounding townscape. Increasingly, our work involves complex mixed-use techniques where retail is a prime value generator but combined with a sophisticated mix of other complementary civic typologies, from residential, office and leisure space, to civic and cultural components too. 

In many cases these projects are not mall” solutions — they are open street” solutions, relying on the skill of the urban designer to craft a new streetscape, which will link seamlessly into its surroundings and exploit the opportunities provided by the creation of new authentic streets, squares, courtyards and gardens. 

With the right critical mass of development, an intelligent mix of uses and a good urban design framework, a story can evolve of a memorable, sustainable and authentic language of retail driven places. 

Often we are asked to think about fusing these streetscape concepts with a core retail offer in a more conventional, internalised mall solution. This approach can generate unique hybrid solutions which in turn generate their own individual character zones in the mall, the open streets and in the interesting transitional zones between. This type of project can create fascinating linkages, relationships and spaces — with opportunities for the creation of a variety of environments, which means that they will always be more interesting than a solution containing a single typology. They can create fantastic urban destinations, which catalyse far wider urban renewal.

One of the key aspects to get right is the creation of great public realm and landscaping — the important glue’ that knits all the buildings together in a powerful and attractive new townscape. The best ideas are often generated by exploiting existing features of a site — a key view, a beautiful retained historic building, or a wonderful lakeside perhaps. These existing features are the memories of the city, and should be embraced in the formation of new authentic places. Recognising the morphology of a historic urban streetscape and sensitively linking into it, is key to creating environments where new and old sit comfortably together. City authorities always welcome this strategy. 

Combined with this approach to public realm landscape and history, it is important to consider climatic issues and how the prevailing conditions might temper the urban design. The tactics you employ on a north facing Scottish riverfront will be very different to those employed in a retail neighbourhood of downtown Dubai — each will drive its own unique character. Techniques of creating shelter, shade, wind protection or cooling will all contribute local individualities which make every project different.

In a hybrid solution, it is vital that the mall and street components complement each other, and that one does not dominate at the expense of the other. Popularity and footfall must be balanced, with the variety of character zones adding to customer curiosity and dwell-time. It is also important that the new open streetscape obeys the basic rules of retail planning — visibility, sight lines, zoning, anchoring, linkages and circuits are critical. The layout must be straightforward, navigable and understandable. The needs of the retailer must be carefully considered in terms of prime position, visibility, ease of servicing, and adjacency to car parking. Provision of vehicular servicing must not damage the urban qualities you are trying to create. The best urban streetscapes create opportunities for special iconic pavilions, custom designed for individual retailers. They act as landmarks and can draw admirers to them. Other new forms of retailing are constantly evolving — lifestyle concepts, pop-up stores and speciality markets too.

What we are describing then, is potentially a more interesting, more vibrant, more attractive proposition than simply a mall. It is a new urban destination of varied opportunity, delight and surprise, somewhere in the city that people will be attracted to for more than the shops. It is an experience, a feel good factor and a constantly refreshed offer that brings people back again and again, and a better way of creating value in the city. For generations cities have evolved across the world with new retailing typologies from the Agora, the Souk, and the Marketplace. It is important to remember though that the best environments are about more than just retail — they are composed of a cleverly constructed cocktail of other uses too — commercial, residential, hotels, leisure, civic and cultural components, all locked into a fascinating matrix of public realm — the perfect recipe for a new urban destination.

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