How to design successful city precincts that increase connectivity and foster retail growth

By Sean Byrne, Group Director – Retail & Commercial, Associate at ThomsonAdsett

Building cities is like building relationships – it’s all about connections.

Connection to places, to environments, to buildings, to activities, to each other.

Cities with high levels of connectivity tend to be more vibrant, more productive, and more interesting.

They are about human-centred urban design, about place-led solutions that help build stronger networks within our cities, leading to stronger social and economic outcomes.

Many new world cities are about flow and circulation with a few destinations that are often fully-pedestrianised in a sea of car-dominant development.

One of the most effective ways to increase connectivity in our cities is to focus on creating ‘precincts’.

Precincts are areas or hubs that drive connections through a concentration of activity and people.

They may be designed de novo or be the subject of renewal. Many precincts do not have clear edges but have strong cores such as a square or a street.

A successful precinct is one that has been designed to attract talent and investment, where people want to live, work and play – a place of vibrancy, diversity and productivity.

Precincts may be for commercial, residential, or for entertainment uses, but many are now mixed types and nearly all will have successful retail offerings.

Key to success

Many of the world’s best cities are renowned for their precincts: the Marais in Paris, New York City’s Greenwich Village, London’s Soho, Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico are all great examples.

These precincts have developed over time in older, established cities.  Creating new precincts is a challenge and some cities have done it very well.

Toronto’s Distillery District and Portland’s Pearl District are also good examples of well-designed precincts.

Additionally, Vancouver’s Olympic Village and Gasworks in Brisbane are two very similar and successful precincts.

Both are developed on former industrial waterfront land and are surrounded by evolving light industrial areas.

They also incorporate elements of their industrial past, benefit from a revitalised waterfront and are destinations for locals and tourists.

Vancouver’s Olympic Village is an 80-acre site, along southeast False Creek, that became an instant neighbourhood and urban destination after the 2010 Olympics.

It features mostly mid-rise buildings, including 1100 residential units, that provide ample density to support a supermarket, other retail and walkability while still leaving 26 acres for a town square and park land, including playgrounds, public art, community gardens, and water sport activities. There’s also a school and council-run civic centre.

Some of the site’s historic buildings, including the iconic Salt Building, have been preserved, as reminders of its historic past.

All of the development’s buildings are highly sustainable, receiving LEED-gold building certification. The Village also boasts the city’s first renewable district heating system, which provides hot water to all the buildings using heat recovered from wastewater.

Gasworks at Newstead Riverpark in Brisbane is an extensive, master-planned, mixed use development, with the heritage-listed and predominant landmark, The Gasometer, at its centre.

The Gasworks precinct is located on riverfront land that was once a series of yards, stores, pipelines and storage devices associated with gas supply.

It’s now a cohesive precinct that includes retail, housing, commercial, bars and restaurants, as well as a very unique town square set around and within the structure of the Gasometer itself.

Much of the architectural design helps tell the stories of the Gasworks in the subtle detail of lighting, pavements, seating and material selection.

Identifying potential

Precincts either form organically or are identified through strategic vision and policy, or a combination of both. They are, however, most successful when policy supports organic and flexible formation.

A classic example of an organically-grown precinct is the SoHo district in New York City, which emerged as a flourishing artists’ community following the departure of industry in the 1950s and 60s.

We need to acknowledge the history of our cities, preserving and enhancing the elements that tell the city’s story and point us in the direction of where precincts are emerging.

History matters

 Repurposing heritage buildings adds authenticity to a precinct and tells a story, and everyone likes a good story.

The history in the buildings is strongly identifiable, giving the area its rich character and attraction.

The Rocks in Sydney, for example, is strongly associated with a rich history, heritage, tourism and its link to Sydney Harbour.

These associations are a result of the built form: the sandstone retail strip, the terraces of the backstreets, the historic paved streets of the markets.

Precinct activation

When it comes to the use of spaces, successful precincts consider both horizontal and vertical integration.

Instead of just focusing on how street frontages are activated at the ground level, we need to think about the mix of uses vertically through the built form and how they might assist in activating each other.

A mix of uses further supports the potential for a 24-hour city, providing a richness of experience for the community and significant economic growth.

Anchor institutions and tenants

A precinct needs a key economic driver in order to grow and thrive.

Large precincts with high productivity and economic output are centred on well-established institutions or industries, referred to as anchors.

These anchors act as catalysers for the growth and development of the precinct.

For example, large retail can play a significant role in defining and driving precincts, influential commercial tenants might drive the influx of other businesses.

Fortunately, Australia’s cities are rich in diversity – it is part of what makes them so attractive.

We have great reason to preserve and build on what makes our cities unique, and precincts are a great way to unlock their hidden potential and support their growth – to make liveable doable.

This article was originally published by Inside Retail here.