Designing successful neighborhood squares. Part 1: Location

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

A neighborhood square must be centrally located at the commercial and civic heart of a neighborhood, with a substantial residential population living within easy walking distance. The vitality of a neighborhood square is heavily dependent on a rich mix of uses in surrounding blocks. Nearby streets should contain apartments and condos, workplaces, schools, services, and shops providing all the necessities of everyday life.

Mix of uses

The square must be close to stores where most local residents get their groceries, newspapers, and pharmacy items so that these regular trips can be conveniently combined with spending a little time on the square, perhaps for coffee or lunch; but the square cannot be merely a forecourt to a single large supermarket. The square exists for the benefit of local residents and small local businesses that support community life, not for the economic benefit of a national or international chain.

Residential population

For a neighborhood square to flourish, it must be surrounded by a diverse residential population of 5,000 – 10,000 living within walking distance. This population constitutes the square’s everyday users, who maintain the square’s vitality, its commercial viability throughout the year, its safety day and night, and its sociable ambience. It is this population who will most strongly support a farmers’ market, help to organize community festivals on the square, and participate in celebrations.

The residential population should be as diverse as possible. Different age groups have different patterns of daily life and can activate the square at different times of day. Working adults may pass through a square on their way to the streetcar to pick up coffee and a pastry, or to buy something for supper on their way home. Children may walk through on their way to school, or play with friends on the square in the afternoon after school finishes. Elders have more flexible routines and may shop in the morning or meet for lunch on the square.

It is beneficial if the neighborhood includes a varied social and ethnic mix. This makes people-watching more interesting and introduces more diversity in the festivals and special events that may happen on the square. The square can provides the ideal setting for healing ethnic and socio-economic divides if it is hospitable for all.

Urban fabric

The urban fabric surrounding a neighborhood square should be compact, with contiguous buildings, preferably with small footprints, forming continuous active walls to the streets. The appropriate heights of these adjacent blocks will depend on the density and scale of the neighborhood as a whole.

To ensure a vibrant user population in a dense urban neighborhood, a ring of 4 – 6 story mixed-use apartment and condo buildings with a density of up to 200 persons per acre, can accommodate a core population. With additional blocks of less dense condos and townhomes, a residential population of 5,000 living within a 5-minute walking distance can easily be achieved. Expanding the walking radius to 10-minutes with predominantly single-family homes at the density of 50 persons per acre can achieve a residential population of 10,000. The greater the diversity of housing types and sizes, the greater the diversity of ages, ethnic and socio-economic groups using the square.

In a new development around a transit station, or a retrofitted mall, the blocks around the square may be five to 7 stories with set-backs above the 5th floor. High-rise buildings should be avoided since these can negatively impact the quality of the public realm in the neighborhood and life on the square.

In an established neighborhood consisting primarily of single family homes, and a neighborhood main street core, these core blocks may be two to 4 stories, and the square may be comparably smaller.

Neighborhoods

In older streetcar suburbs with a mixed-use main street it may be easier to introduce a small neighborhood square because many of the necessary elements will already exist in close proximity. Along the main street or on adjacent blocks it may be necessary to introduce some 3-5 story mixed-use buildings to ensure a sufficient residential population within walking distance.

A recent report called “Older, Smaller, Better. Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality” demonstrates that older suburbs “containing a mix of older, smaller buildings of diverse age support greater levels of positive economic and social activity than areas dominated by newer, larger buildings."

New transit-oriented development is spurring mixed-use neighborhood centers. Sometimes, these contain a school, shops, cafes, restaurants, some offices, compact housing, and a civic resource such as a library or community meeting room, all within walking and biking distance of surrounding single-family homes. So far, few of these contain the most important element - a small neighborhood square - to form the nucleus and heart of the neighborhood.

Low density suburbs of tract homes and gated compounds pose a far greater challenge. In the midst of these totally auto-dependent suburbs there are often dying suburban malls, some of which are now being retrofitted as mixed-use development, including multi-family housing. A few of these have also tried - with varying success - to create a neighborhood square.

Belmar, Colorado is in the process of transforming a dying suburban mall into a compact neighborhood. The street grid has been restored, and some 4 and 5 story mixed-use buildings (residential over shops) have been introduced. An attractive new square has been created, but until there is a sufficiently dense residential population it will be hard to know if the square can build community. There are still vast acres of parking lots waiting to be rebuilt as mixed-use urban fabric.

While not yet built out, Glenwood Park, Atlanta, by Dover Kohl is an excellent example of a walkable, child-friendly neighborhood with a fine-grained, human scale mix of uses, lively urban places and green parks. The new neighborhood, replacing an old brownfield site, was honored at the 2010 48th IMCL Conference with the IMCL Neighborhood Award. However, the heart of the neighborhood, Brasfield Square, combining mixed use, cars, and a park surrounded by traffic is more of a squark than a square.

Rockville, MD, a suburb of Washington DC with a population of 58,000 has created a new town square in a central location within easy walking distance of Amtrack and Metro stations (though the quality of the pedestrian access could still be improved).  This very large square – at 130’ x 320’ more of a town square than a neighborhood square - is surrounded by 5-7 story mixed-use buildings with shops and restaurants at street level, surmounted by 644 residential units, both condominiums and apartments, 15 percent of which are affordable, moderately-priced dwelling units. Hopefully, this residential mix will offer more affordable units over time. It remains to be seen whether this very large town square generates community and civic engagement.

Turn to Part 2: Accessibility