The Magic is in the Mix: Rethinking Mixed-Use Urbanism

Photo Credit: Nick Bastian on Flickr

‘Mixed-use’ is one of the most over-used, yet most misunderstood phrases in urban development. In recent years, ‘mixed-use buildings’ has become the new planning dogma, just like ‘specialized buildings’ was before it.

Many cities have invested a lot of money in developing mixed-use buildings, streets and neighborhoods, but haven’t achieved the urban vibrancy they want. This is often times because their underlying urban fabric remains coarse (i.e. large and monotonous).

In most new urbanist mixed-use developments the residential units are often all high-end condos and the retail is usually a series of chain stores. Moreover, little in the neighborhood is more than a few years old. Thus, although the uses may seem mixed, the culture is monolithic. At the same time, many arts districts face the same fate of attracting monolithic culture (albeit completely different from the previous example). A block of live work galleries doesn’t make for a vibrant neighborhood bur rather an artists ghetto.

Looking for a Phx

In downtown Phoenix, these two extremes are seen in the artist collectives and bars that have functioned, but never flourished along Grand Ave for the past decade or so on one hand; and the monotonous collection of upper middle-class restaurants and retail outlets being rolled out at CityScape on the other.

The reason that these types of mixed-use areas fail to live up to expectation is that they are too economically—and therefore, functionally limited—to be lively, interesting and convenient for a range of people. They lack the intermingling of class and functionality that offer the stimulation and interest essential to a vibrant urban core.

So the question remains: If mixed-use isn’t the answer, what it?

Urban Diversity

Perhaps a better way of looking at mixed use, is ‘diversity’. This was a basis tenet of Jane Jacobs in her classic tome, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Diversity, according to Jacobs, isn’t simply a mix of uses but an integration of business types:

Photo Credit: UrbanGrammar on Flickr

“True diversity requires the “mingling of high yield middling yield, low yield, and no-yield enterprises” —Jane Jacobs

To me, “mixed use” means more than mixing residential and commercial. It also means proximity to other uses like schools/universities, parks, museums, courthouses, industries, meditation, train stations, etc. The reality is that not every building needs to have multiple uses or tenants but each block should and each neighborhood must.

These kinds of destinations help to define a city’s identity. They do so through the variety of uses and public spaces that highlight local assets and unique talents and skills of the communityeducational, cultural, and commercialthat are all open and available to all visitors to enjoy for free.

Such neighborhoods allow residents to visit, become involved and stay awhile. They are not defined by architecture, but rather the uses that are front and center and the buildings and design elements that support them.

Replacing Mixed with Multiple

“It is fatal to specialize… the more diverse we are in what we can do the better.” Jane Jacobs

Perhaps then it is time to move beyond the simple concept of ‘mixed use’ to a more robust style of development. The time of simply thinking of urban development as “Starbucks over condos, maybe with a train that comes every day” has passed.

Instead we need to start thinking of creating neighborhoods that build authentic places through multiple uses that are intimately related, interconnected and interdependent. After all, true urban diversity comes from the relationships between uses, tenants, and the organizations within a place.

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Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.