New Changning, Shanghai, China. Image © Gensler
This post is part of a series discussing the findings and implications of Gensler’s Research projects.
American cities, by their nature, have a way of encouraging shockingly different, even dissonant, elements to comingle and spawn dynamic new forms. Jazz and hip-hop—two quintessentially urban and American genres of music—are predicated on such fusions. Jazz (which was born in what was, for many years, our most diverse southern city, New Orleans) blends African polyrhythms and scales with European chord progression concepts. Hip-hop (which sprang from our most diverse northern city, New York) weaves together snatches of pre-existing recorded material from funk, soul, rock, electronic music and jazz. Such unforeseen mash-ups are the life-blood of American cities.
Given our history of inventive synthesis, it seems strange that until recently our urban environments have shunned mixing when it comes to their programming and design. After all, mixed-use developments, like jazz and hip-hop, weave together seemingly disparate elements to create something cohesive, dynamic, and unabashedly new. As a result, they’re an incredibly effective tool for breathing new life into single-use downtowns plagued by decades of urban decay. From DC to LA, and points in between, mixed use is solving the riddle of devastated central business districts.
Contrast our mixed use history with that of China and other parts of the so-called “developing world,” where mixed use has long been one of the most prevalent types of real estate development. But thanks to reverse innovation—i.e., taking ideas born in emerging markets and applying them in the West—many of the practices associated with mixed used are now finding a place in America. This is partly due to the influence of projects financed by investors from other nations, and it’s partly an acknowledgement of the global trend towards integrated urbanization. It’s also a manifestation of the Millennial view of a connected lifestyle that’s not only focused on the typical Live-Work-Play model, but also infused with the intangible elements that instill soul into daily life.
With my own recent move from Shanghai to D.C., I’m looking at how some of the ideas explored by myself and fellow mixed use practitioners in Asia can be applied here in the States. One of those ideas is that a mixed-use project’s typical focus areas—including tenant and program mix, infrastructure, vehicular and pedestrian circulation and aesthetics—aren’t enough to ensure success. It’s also those aforementioned intangibles that are vital to creating truly impactful and successful mixed-use developments that elevate the human experience.
The key lies in the voids, the interstitial spaces between buildings where a city’s soul lives and social interactions reside. Think plazas, courtyards, passageways, sidewalks and parks. These in-between spaces are analogous to the in-between notes used to form Bebop scales in jazz. By strategically injecting such notes (called chromatic passing tones, if you want to get technical about it) into traditional scales, artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were able to invent a type of jazz with bold new colors and character.
Shimao Shenzhen Qianhai Canal City, Shenzhen, China. Image © Gensler
In mixed use, the in-between elements are the connective fabric that weaves together the threads of a city and its people. The design and activation of these spaces serve as keys to unlocking the full performance potential of a project and injecting more dynamism into cities. And though these aspects of a project come under the heading of intangibles, they actually yield tangible results for everything from performance (of the functional, monetary, and sustainable varieties) to experience.
To better understand the impact of these in-between elements, Gensler initiated a two-year research project entitled “Spaces in Between.” As a result of that effort, we identified six elements—nature, community, human scale, culture, connectivity and art—that can be mixed into developments to create places with spirit and energy. These elements are not formulaic and should be applied in infinitely different combinations, depending on the project. But our research aims to show that when applied effectively, they can activate and unlock project potential, generate higher revenues, and create more soulful spaces and, ultimately, more soulful cities.
A prime reason why urban environments are such great attractors of people and business is because they offer experiences with a verve and character found only in places where diverse elements are allowed to collide. If American urban enclaves are to remain competitive on the global stage, they’ll need to encourage more of these harmonious collisions on the design front.
Watch the video, “Spaces in Between,” for more details on this research project.
Shamim Ahmadzadegan believes that architecture and design should not only deliver solutions that benefit their locale and inhabitants, but also result in commercial success. With more than 20 years of worldwide design experience, he balances his global vision with a deep sensitivity for local context and culture. As a principal and design director in Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office, Shamim also leads the firm’s Mixed Use Practice Area. Contact him at email@example.com.