Form Follows Fun: The New Paradigm
If street culture is the glue that holds together an urban environment, what happens when its denizens no longer need to go outside? This is one of the fundamental questions faced by architects today, decades after the New Urbanist movement first popularized, or rather brought back, the concept of mixed-use streetscapes—and more than sixty years since Jane Jacobs famously championed walkable streets as essential to building vibrant urban communities.
Long gone, of course, are the days when city streets were our only outlet or option for access to retail and other services. Now, the internet gives us all that and more: remote shopping, banking, education, and even healthcare. Meanwhile, social media has transformed the way we communicate with friends and neighbors. All of which is to say: we no longer need to go out for social interaction or to procure services, we choose to.
Did the COVID-19 pandemic turbocharge these trends? Of course, but we were already well on our way. The more important questions are: where does this all leave us and what does it mean for our streets and street culture? As our brains are increasingly wired to live, work, create, and play in the virtual arena, from anywhere at any time, what role in this new landscape can a public physical realm, shared by all, serve?
Moreover, as architects, how can we help create public spaces that provide all the accessibility, excitement, and sense of exploration of the virtual world? And what might our streets be able to offer that the Metaverse cannot?
The answer lies in creative spaces that elicit an emotional response, draw people in, and offer them more than a single exchange or touchpoint. Cities need neighborhoods with enhanced ground-floor programs where public space is granted at the ground level in return for private building rights on top. Yes, this means denser cities, but more livable enjoyable spaces. The logic here is that the commercial value of the private space is dependent on a lively, diverse, and accessible public area below. The activated ground floor, filled with art and culture, adds immeasurably to whatever is built above, creating both quality-of-life and economic incentives.
A Menagerie of Unique Spaces
A public green space is far more impactful when combined with and supported by indoor attractions that cater to folks from all walks of life. These indoor activators can and should go beyond traditional retail. If the goal is to match the accessibility, excitement, and exploration of the online world, then as architects and inventors of this new public sphere, creativity is key and possibilities vast. From sports-related activities to urban farming and playgrounds to wellness centers, the idea is to transform our streetscapes into exciting paths of discovery. What we once saw as eyesores—empty retail establishments, alleyways, even unused courtyards inside city blocks—become opportunities for reinvention.
But only if the new ground floor offerings are affordable. Think street markets filled with diverse local vendors. The more fun and creative the ground level is the more desirable the space above becomes. It’s more than just shopping, it’s exploration, it’s a true cultural experience.
A great example is Empire Stores in DUMBO, which resides in an old factory building that was converted to a modern mixed-used structure. With its menagerie of unique spaces for working, living, shopping, and eating, it has inarguably become an anchor in the neighborhood. Though not without detractors, Empire Stores feels special in the arrangement and offering of different activities, at different scales, happening at every corner of the premises, allowing for a range of interactions. The ambiguity is what makes it all work, an intriguing example of a new model for the public realm, one that invites people to explore with no particular agenda.
Not only do projects like Empire Stores confirm what the digital world learned long ago about the value of creating traffic at a site. But instead of just trying to provide the same kinds of services that are increasingly performed online, they offer something different: a multi-functional environment that still feels familiar, intimate, inviting to all—and fun.
Fun may seem like an odd metric here but it’s vital to our goal of making cities and street-level experiences compete with virtual experiences. In fact, we should be using new terms like this in evaluating our design processes as well as outcomes. Goodbye to the old ways of designing (e.g., siloed, single-use buildings within single-use districts) that do not begin to cater to the needs of today. Now is the time for a new approach infused with all the flexibility our modern world demands. That means creating joyful, dynamic streetscapes that draw people out by recognizing and ministering to their personal journeys and serving them with meaningful, memorable IRL experiences.
We have an opportunity to do this now in Astoria, Queens where we have designed a new master plan with Silverstein Properties, Bedrock, and Kaufman Studios. Innovation QNS is truly ambitious in both scale and impact. Its 2.7 million square feet are made up of not just new residential, retail, community, and maker spaces, but also abundant public space. In fact, 25 percent of the floorplan is being developed as parks and curated spaces that weave the community together. It’s a new formula devised in part to help jumpstart local economies and address longstanding social, cultural, and environmental community needs. The plan currently includes 3,200 units of housing, more than 45% of which will be affordable. Within that 45%, at least 500 of the units will serve members of the community making less than 30% of the area’s median income, or about $28,000 for individuals or $36,000 for a family of four. The approved plan also includes dedicated units to serve individuals exiting the shelter system.
Ultimately, our goal is to bring human density back to this area, as part of a bigger mission to reimagine urban living and reactivate the urban core of NYC, injecting more vitality at the street level. New innovation districts like QNS can help do just that, with thoughtfully programmed open spaces that offer something for everyone, drawing people out to stroll, play, and relax together as a community.
Our hope is that the new green web of environmental, social, and economic sustainability ushered in by rezoning and public-private partnerships will take root over time and expand in Astoria and beyond.