About GenslerOnCities

What makes cities tick? GenslerOnCities explores the planning, design, and the potential futures of urban landscapes.

Search GenslerOn
Cities Topics
Connect with Us
« How do You Design Outdoor Spaces for Inclement Weather? | Main | London’s Unchartered Territory »

Creating High Performing Urban Cities through Placemaking

“James John Jetel for Chicago Loop Alliance | jjjetel.com.

As we wrap up another year of outdoor activities in downtown Chicago, I am blown away by the increasing livability of urban environments in the United States.

Forever altered by traffic engineers through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, big cities seem to have evolved during that time around a mentality of prioritizing cars first, busses second, and people third. Roads were made as wide as possible, with dedicated turn lanes and parking everywhere, and the leftover space was relegated to pedestrians, who were forced to cross two, three, four, even five lanes of fast-moving traffic at every intersection.

With the younger generation rethinking the necessity of having a personal automobile, alternative forms of transportation are growing in popularity. Minneapolis is extending their light rail system to St. Paul; Kansas City is installing a street car system that connects downtown with the warehouse district; and Chicago is adding Bus Rapid Transit that will connect Union Station to Navy Pier. These systems all go right through the core of these major Midwest cities.

Chicago was one of the first cities in the country to add a double/double bike lane (on Dearborn Street) taking away a lane of automobile traffic on this major one-way street for a two-way rapid bike lane right through the heart of the city. There were some initial rumblings for losing on-street parking and curb lane drop offs, but as an avid bike commuter, I can tell you that there is “rush hour” on these bike lanes, and I wonder when the city is going to add additional capacity for this major North-South route.

The new urban core is different. Instead of commuting to the suburbs, urbanophiles are choosing to live close to their work. Urban cores are slowly transitioning from a 9-to-5 retail/office center into mixed-use residential neighborhoods. With these work, transportation, and play shifts, the transportation-focused urban infrastructure that dominates the American city today must also evolve.

Earlier this summer, the Chicago Loop Alliance (CLA) opened a pop-up-park within Pritzker Park in the Loop. Adorned with tables and playful interaction opportunities, the CLA sees insets like this as an opportunity to achieve its mission of creating a high-performing urban environment. I see it as creating happy place. During the opening, there was a great, high energy orchestra-type ska band playing. The music was toe tapping, and reverberated through the surrounding urban canyon, overpowering the rumble of the CTA elevated train that passed overhead. The crowd was dancing; people were looking down from the neighboring high-rise buildings; customers on the CTA platform took a higher vantage point to see the activity. The excitement and community in this park was palpable. This impromptu event was the type of experience that you can only stumble across. Events like this help create a lifetime memorable experiences.

As I walked away from the event, I saw something that still sticks in my memory. There was a man in his 70s pushing his wife in a wheel chair. They both sported a grin that was ear to ear, and she looked back at him and said, “What is it? Let’s go see it.” They had not planned their day around this urban experience, but happened across it. Who knows where they were coming from or where they were going to, but what I do know is that inserting activity into an existing urban space created excitement, drew passersby, and created a happy place within this busy life we live.

For the elderly couple, it provided a diversion from where they were going. For the families that came, it gave the kids a chance to blow off some steam and run around. For me, it made me proud to live in a high-performing urban environment and forced me to consider the potential of our built environment in a new light.

Have you ever stumbled across something in the city that gave you this same feeling? How can we do more of it? How can we make our urban experiences more about the people than the cars? Tell me what you think.

David Broz co-leads Gensler’s education and culture practice. He uses a research-based approach to design educational environments in response to today’s digital-native students. His conversations with administrators, professors, and futurists have led him to publish several studies that show how space can support learning and transform the overall campus experience. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.