The American suburbs built since World War II have many deficiencies, not the least of which are expensive, fiscally unsustainable infrastructure and a proclivity toward traffic congestion. But the greatest drawback of all gets the least attention: the poverty of the public realm. Outside of shopping malls, there really is no public realm in the post-World War II suburbs. Streets are not designed for walking. There are no plazas. Parks are accessibly mainly by automobile. The only gathering places are found indoors — libraries, churches, fitness clubs and the like.
But tastes are changing, and a new generation of real estate developers understands that creating quality public spaces — particularly streets, sidewalks and parks — allows them to charge premium prices for their buildings. The key insight they have grasped is that humans are social creatures. Yes, people like their privacy of their homes, but they also enjoy being around other people. They like to walk. They like to watch other people. They like gathering in groups.
Developers in the Richmond region have gotten the message that there is a large unmet demand for “walkable urbanism,” places that make it easy, even delightful, for people to walk around. Walkability goes deeper than the utilitarian function of allowing people to substitute walk trips for car trips, thus reducing traffic congestion. People like walkability because it facilitates social interaction. Sadly, most efforts to build walkable communities in the Richmond suburbs have been underwhelming.
That’s why I’m paying close attention to the development of Libbie Mill-Midtown in Henrico County. Gumenick Properties may be paying keener attention to the quality of the public spaces they’re building in the 800-acre, $434 million project than has any other suburban developer in the history of the Richmond region. As a sign of how seriously Gumenick takes the public realm, the company has engaged the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization launched by William Whyte, the pioneer who first studied the sociology of small public spaces from a scientific perspective.
Little of what Gumenick is doing is new — it’s just been forgotten. Company spokesman Ed Crews describes the project as “retro.” Libbie Mill-Midtown seeks to create “what the urban environment was a century ago,” before counties outlawed mixed-use zoning and developers designed communities largely around the car.
As I explained in a recent post (see “The Invisible Parking Garage“), Gumenick is building a pedestrian-friendly community. The mixed-use project is laid out in a street grid with wide sidewalks. Great attention is paid to defining the pedestrian street space and providing a variety of destinations within easy walking distance of apartments and town homes. Gumenick donated land for construction of a new Henrico County library, and plans call for lots of street-level space for restaurants, shops and local services.
Parking is only one dimension of the challenge. The landscape of the Richmond region is pocked with ugly sediment ponds installed to manage storm water. Occasionally, someone sticks some gazebos by them or turns them into something visually interesting like a man-made wetlands. But Gumenick is investing the resources to transform its storm water pond into the focal point of the entire development.
The rendering above is a conceptual sketch of what that lake might look like. The final design will depend upon the buildings constructed around it. But there will be trails, a fountain, plazas, an amphitheater and places where people can touch the water. One of the key insights learned from the Project for Public Spaces, says Crews, is not to fill in the public space with fixed benches and other objects. Instead, provide portable furniture that people can rearrange to accommodate the size of their small groups.
Shane Finnegan, vice president of construction, says the plaza will be built for flexibility in order to accommodate a wide range of activities. For instance, to accommodate tents for farmer’s markets and other events, the design calls for embedding hold-downs in the pavement. Alternatively, the community might bring in taco trucks and a marimba band. The programmatic element of bringing in events and concerts will be important in Libbie Mill-Midtown, as it is in downtown Richmond, Innsbrook and other areas. The difference is that in Libbie Mill, the physical space will be designed from the beginning with that programmatic element in mind.
“This won’t be built in a day,” cautions Crews. Indeed, the project is expected to take 10 years to complete, depending upon market conditions. There needs to be a critical mass of people living and working in the neighborhood for activity in the public spaces to take off.
Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick is betting that investing in the public realm will pay off. I’d wager that the company has it right.