PCA’s Laura Portney tackles the central question at the heart of today’s placemaking: Why Do They Come?

One thing we know about retail venues in 2022 is that offering a singular experience is a sure way to fail. If you think about traditional shopping venues including the suburban indoor mall, you can understand why its appeal is limited. It has a function. But for me, a trip to the mall is not what I would call fun.

The mall experience aside, it’s clear we have more choices than ever these days on where to spend the shrinking amount of time available to us. This begs the question, why do people come, and then return, to experience and enjoy a particular place? A good start towards answering this question is human nature.

In his landmark 1989 book titled The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg examined the shared human need for community interaction and enjoyment. Oldenburg cited human history and our collective need for “third places” where people gather, escape from the confines of home and work and enjoy the social vitality experience of a community space. His take: most of us have an innate need for the shared experience of the block party, the neighborhood bar, the street festival and the village market.

Our work planning and designing mixed-use retail developments confirms – and adds to – this universal and emotional connection. These experiences, including mixed-use destinations Arsenal Yards, Tuscan Village and MarketStreet Lynnfield, build upon the research of Oldenburg and others to understand what works and why people come. Here are a few that stand out as reasons to come – and to come back.

Density – Once considered a conversation stopper in host communities, density is a proven advantage in the quest for successful retail and mixed-use developments. Think about the most celebrated retail places in the world. Les Champs-Elysées in Paris, Bond Street in London and Fifth Avenue in New York are immersive, intuitive experiences in part because of building density and height.

Multistory buildings establish an appealing setting for shoppers and pedestrians. An additional benefit to zoning for added density is economic– the jobs and other ripple effect impacts made possible with more space for residential, commercial and hospitality uses.

Open Space – Placemaking for a diverse mix of visitor ages and interests lead us to see how the future of mixed-use retail will integrate open spaces for respite, people watching and programmed entertainment and events. The River Green at Arsenal Yards and The Green at MarketStreet Lynnfield do just that. From the pumpkin carving contest at Arsenal Yards to the annual Easter Egg Hunt these open spaces create a shared community within these developments. Customers, tenants and residents embrace the foot traffic and pockets of activity generated by a kids’ music night, an open-air art gallery, food trucks and family-based festivals.

An Inviting Sidewalk and Pedestrian Experience – The best mixed-use destinations celebrate and sustain engaging, fun experiences for walking, shopping and gawking. It all starts with the sidewalk experience. During master planning, we make it a priority to think beyond just the buildings to imagine and enliven the spaces in between buildings. These are opportunities to create a lively pedestrian experience – and to integrate that experience with the retail and hospitality spaces.

To accomplish this objective, the planning at sidewalk level includes creating visual variety and unexpected encounters. A great destination offers a variety of spontaneous options – allowing customers to stay and spend the day exploring with their friends and family. Individual group members can break off for time to take a walk, visit a cafe or stop at shops that interest them. This focus on spontaneous choice matches up well with contemporary consumers.

Local Community Feel – By collaborating with the host community, the development and design team can strengthen the attraction of a mixed-use destination. One example of this thinking is recruiting local retail tenants and partnering with local arts, music and cultural organizations. This approach should begin during master planning by engaging with local civic and business leaders to gain from their ideas and together create a welcoming and locally inspired environment. It may mean, for example, offering connected bike paths or public transportation options such as a shuttle bus from a rail or subway station to reduce automobile traffic.

When it comes to deciding where and with whom they want to build a customer relationship, today’s informed consumers expect authenticity. By understanding the needs and aspirations of tenants, customers and local community members, and by creating a mixed-use development that aligns with their needs, the ‘what makes people come?’ question is so much easier to answer – and design to.

Laura Portney is a senior associate at PCA and led the Arsenal Yards’ team as project manager. She can be reached at lportney@pcadesign.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2022 edition of Banker & Tradesman