Blog: Mark Nickita

Mark Nickita is the cofounder of the award-winning multi-disciplinary design firm Archive Design Studio. A resident of Birmingham, Mark was selected by Crain's Detroit as one of its 40 under 40 business leaders, is the winner of several architectural & urban design awards and sits on the Birmingham Planning Board. Mark will be writing about Metro Detroit's need for livable, workable, and walkable urban neighborhoods.

Post 3: Exchange of space for place

In the first half of the twentieth century, the American lifestyle was relatively compact and dense. In general, people lived in towns and cities, used transit, owned fewer cars, and larger families resided in smaller houses and apartments.  Additionally, citizens fully utilized civic spaces like parks, squares and streets for most of their daily activities. They engaged the public realm.  After World War II, the population of the country grew rapidly and began to develop in an increasingly isolated and introverted manner.  The auto culture brought decentralization, cities began to sprawl and there was less orientation toward walking and transit.  The 1950s also brought with it the rise of the private and yet "public" space, most notably, the American shopping mall phenomenon.  These places, often referred to as "grey spaces", are neither fully public nor private, and evolved as the only "public" places available in many of the new suburbs. 

The typical American lifestyle began to take on a very different form as the inefficient use of land (land area per person), rapidly increased.  Many new suburbs were built on farmland and neglected to build public places, created limited park space, and had no town centers. As older traditional towns developed into new car-oriented municipalities, the quality of public space also diminished, and the lack of a real sense of place became evident for the people of many American communities.  Simply using more land rarely equated to a higher quality of places for people.

Workplace square footages have also experienced growth over the last few decades.   The amount of office space per worker, for example, had increased, resulting in additional infrastructure costs for businesses and municipalities.  These workspaces, often lacking in density, have increased the amount of land used per occupant, since a significant amount of post-war office spaces are located in car-oriented environments that require large parking lots.  The result has been an increase of spatially inefficient buildings leading to questions about the need and quality of built space for the users.

As the amount of the usable public realm decreased as a percentage of the population, personal space conditions changed as well and housing began to take on different characteristics from the pre-war era.  Over time, the average size of the family began to shrink, while housing (square footage) became larger and oriented toward the inside and the rear.  Designs for new houses incorporated garages that faced the street and covered the majority of the front façade.  By doing this, they lost their front porches and gained a rear deck. This resulted in a blatant disconnect from the street and sidewalk, if one existed at all, since many new housing developments didn't provide pedestrian sidewalks or any accommodation for walking.  Houses built in this manner, and their occupying families, physically turned their backs to the street and therefore, the community.  Concurrently, the size of lots increased as well without adding much to the function of a smaller lot, just more grass to mow and water.  Internally, spaces such as the great room or den became the place for all activity while the living room was used once a year at Christmas time or for special occasions.  Within the average family dwelling, more space was often a priority over efficiencies and quality.  

Since the beginning of our current century, there has been a change in priorities with respect to the use of space and the need for placemaking.  This has been fueled by overall trends that have established a demand for sustainable environments, an awareness for walkable and pedestrian orientation and the increase of technological advancements.  Additionally, and maybe most importantly, land use and space alterations have also been highly influenced by the Great Recession and the need for financial efficiency. Over the last three years, it has become very apparent that the way that we all live, work and play is significantly changing.  

After decades of continual growth, 2008 saw the beginning of a decline in the average square footage of homes in the United States. In 1970 the size of the average home was 1,400 square feet, with the peak being reached in 2007 where the average had risen to around 2,400 square feet.  The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) recently announced that they expect homes to average 2,150 square feet in 2015 (after a U.S. economic recovery) which is a 10% decrease from the 2010 average.  All indications are that people are interested in smaller homes that are more efficient, driven by desire as well as by economics.  The future will find residential users having a distinct interest in efficiency over extravagance.

Office and workspaces are also becoming smaller and more efficient, driven by the quality of space and cost considerations. Innovative business models for workspaces are becoming clearer. Technology has had a major impact in the work environment where, home offices, office hotelling, video conferencing and remote access computing have transformed the need and quality of the workplace.  This has been recently accelerated by laptops, smart phones and iPads, leading the workforce to seek quality places to work because their "office" is mobile.  In today's world, a civic square, a park bench or a coffee shop can be as productive, if not more, than the same 70-square-foot cubicle that traditionally would be occupied day after day for many years.  The result of this transition will require less stationary, conventional office space and increases the need and use of the public realm.  This illustrates a rise in the demand for placemaking to accommodate these new ways of working.

Serious lifestyle changes surround the typical American and they are resulting in a paradigm shift toward a decrease in our personal private space and an increase in the public realm.  Grey spaces and third places are assisting in the blending and blurring of the live, work and play environment.   Other ways in which this new way of living is manifested can be seen with the reestablishment of the coffee house as a public place.  On any given day, a coffee shop will be filled with a mix of people recreating and working in an environment where the line is blurred between professional and casual.   Across the country there are numerous examples of the reinstatement of placemaking that is occurring as infill parks and civic squares, recreational areas and dog parks are being added to communities.   These public realm enhancements often provide efficient uses of land to the benefit of many, creating a real value to an environment.

Other areas where the public realm is being increased is with civic infrastructure.  We are experiencing a national movement to build Complete Streets in every community. These will incorporate all transit options, such as bikes, buses, light rail and walkability.  Complete Streets are often achieved by taking underutilized streets that may be oversized and only accommodate auto activities, and redesigning the same streets into highly efficient public places.

I have participated in creating this exchange of space for place in much of my urban design work, where I have designed downtown districts, commercial corridors and neighborhoods to increase the public realm and create additional civic assets.  Developing usable and quality public places from underutilized land areas can be achieved in a variety of ways.  On the Toledo riverfront we designed unique public space as an urban beach to be built on abandoned industrial land.  In Toronto, we replaced salt storage areas with multiple parks, squares and mixed-use housing.  Other urban design strategies found us designing public spaces and walkable streets in place of huge underutilized commercial parking lots. And in other cities, we proposed parks and pedestrian paths where parking lots and alleys existed.

As we move forward into the next decade of this century, there will be increasing demand for places for people in our communities.  However, we will be required to use less land while creating high efficiencies.  Many Americans will welcome this approach as more great places will be created, as less space will be wasted.  In the end it will result in the focus on the quality of the public realm in exchange for quantity of space that doesn't work well for its users.  A positive shift that is long overdue.