In the U.S., mixed-use design has been one solution to the lack of “soul” and sense of place in so much of the development that has occurred due to the interstate highway system after World War II.
That uniquely American invention, the American suburb, presented a largely compartmentalized world … tract houses here, strip mall shops there, sidewalks and roads all standard widths, trees of a certain type all planted at the same time. None of that “built over time” and idiosyncratic planning that makes places special. Add in cul-de-sacs, enclosed regional shopping centers, office parks, drive-through restaurants, and the like, and you’ve got a remarkable sameness from community, to city, to region. Economically brilliant, but with none of the complex layering of the traditional village, town, or city, much less main street. An “experiential loss” as has been described by Norm J.T. Elder.
Mixed-use design in its best form can encourage the experiential moments that are often lacking in master-planned places. And with inspired connections to adjacent and surrounding host communities, mixed-use projects can spur a sense of community, of connection to a place. The best of the mixed-use facilities are not inward, insular projects, but catalyst projects that help to knit with their surroundings and provide the connections and edges that foster further urban (and suburban) revitalization and redevelopment.
We all experience that almost nostalgic feeling as we walk along a “great street” of the world, or a main street in an interesting town. These interstitial instants when we happen upon others in a gathering place small or large, and have an interaction or “gather and stare” moment, a well-scripted mixed-use facility can almost assure these will happen. The various land use types, verticality, varying day-parts and week-parts, each component of a mixed-use development is a bit of paint on the canvas. It is not possible to replicate the complex layering of a traditional city, created by so many hands over to many years; but like an artist it is possible to paint just enough and leave it to people to use and interpret that space from that point.
While all of the above is true and aspirational for mixed-use design, to make it work takes much more. The tenure of real estate and builder-imposed restrictions (merchant association, homeowner associations, sign restrictions) while comforting to asset value these decisions also effect how a mixed-use project can evolve over time, or not. There are many such details beyond design to how mixed-use can be made to work rather well – for the consumers, employees, homeowners, and students, who occupy these places.