The design of ‘place’ in retail centers

 Over the course of history, public places have reflected the needs and cultures of community. But despite this connection between public places and community, the 20th century moved from this way of living and instead centered life around the suburbanization of the country. This suburban sprawl that stretched from the Southeast to the Northwest led us to the “geography of nowhere,” where one strip mall and subdivision looked like any other “place.” Fast forward to the 21st Century. Over the past decade or so, two trends have conspired to undercut the traditional importance of shopping centers as focal points for the communities in which they are located. First, consumers now have tremendous opportunities to buy goods at lower prices because of big-box commodity stores. Secondly many consumers are now shopping online from the comfort of their couch. Though some retail formats have changed and the forecasts of the demise of shopping centers remains unwarranted, people still need connection and a sense of belonging to their community. Clearly consumers are looking for something else.

What, then, can be done to make that visit to a shopping center not just something driven by necessity, but an event that can be fun, enjoyable and even memorable?

Are there opportunities to develop a sense of place in today’s suburban areas?

We need look no further than a Brookfield, Wisconsin project slated to open in Spring 2017. The $200 million, 750,000 s/f project, called The Corners, is one of the largest construction projects in Wisconsin. The original, underutilized site included vacant retail surrounded by a sea of parking – a common characteristic of the 20th Century shopping mall. Having had the privilege of leading the design team, we focused the compact vertically integrated mixed use development around a public green space that includes walkable blocks and pedestrian-friendly streets designed to activate those who live, work, and shop there. The central square is intended to go beyond shopping and invite other activities, including holiday festivities, concerts in the park, community activities, and cultural events. The design also takes advantage of the site’s topography by featuring a full level of semi below-grade parking, allowing the team to increase the density of the project while providing warm covered parking - perfect for those Wisconsin winters. Besides the physical aspects of the site, The Corners will also provide those intangible aspects of place, such as social interactions and memories, meaning and sense of community ownership, and an identity and feeling unique to that specific community. Consumers today are looking for shopping centers that are unique, have character, and can provide that true “sense of place.” Destination projects - like The Corners - point to consumers’ changing tastes in shopping and their demand for innovative design, leisure, and entertainment to be a part of their retail experiences. It is clear that retail has come to be regarded as less about buying goods and more about creating unique experiences and places, increasing the odds consumers are likely to become repeat, loyal customers.

Dustin Watson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, NCARB, CDP, is founder and principal of inPLACE Design, an architecture, planning, and design firm with the experience to create engaging places in cities, towns, and suburbs throughout the United States and around the world. For more information, contact the author at dwatson@inplace-design.com, visit their website at www.inplace-design.com, or follow them @inPLACEDesign.

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