STREET-LEVEL ARCHITECTURE AND THE STREET-LEVEL ECONOMY

The ground floor of buildings represent our main experience of architecture in urban environments. We all like to walk past vibrant storefronts, welcoming front stoops, and lively patios! Then why are so many of our buildings so boring or even hostile at street level? Why can’t we seem to create exciting street-level frontages? How could we do better?

Answering this question requires looking beyond formal architecture, specifically studying the function frontages. Economic dynamics play a large role, specifically when it comes to urban retail and the future of storefronts beyond retail.

In these fields, I have published a range of authored and edited books, journal articles, journal issues, and the Oxford University bibliography on urban retail. Have a look at key works below. 

The forces behind frontage erosion
The interactivity of frontages in three cities over the past century
Entrances per square foot of floor space over the past century

STREET-LEVEL ARCHITECTURE AND INTERACTIVE FRONTAGES

In my practice as an urban designer, I increasingly learned that a major element of our urban experience is not just the street itself, but the architecture that lines it. After all, human beings evolutionarily scan their surroundings mostly at eye level. Our urban experience vastly improves if we walk past interactive frontages - street level architecture that give our walks purpose, safety, and above all, excitement.


To my surprise, I found that the dynamics of interactive frontages were hardly studied by any of the professions that influence frontages. Starting with my dissertation in Architecture at the University of Michigan in 2010, I developed a body of work that studies why frontages have deactivated, and what we can do to reactivate them. This work has been published as the article Active Centers, Interactive Edges in Urban Design International in 2016. This work has evolved into the book Street Level Architecture - The Past, Present, and Future of Interactive Frontages, written with STIPO partner Hans Karssenberg.

Retail storefront decline in three cities
Retail sensitivity to agglomeration.jpg
Comparison of retail in Anglo-Saxon cities

URBAN RETAIL

Urban retail stands out as one of the key elements in our eye-level experience of the city. Surprisingly, urban designers and architects are largely unaware of the dynamics of retail. Wishing for that corner coffee shop of local grocer does not magically make them appear, as the vacant storefronts in many new urban district demonstrate.

My research has focused on how retail thrives in cities, what obstructs retailers from thriving, and what we can expect for the future of urban retail. Studies include locational and agglomerational effects of retail decline, and reviews and edited works on urban retail dynamics and trends.

Key works include the following key journal articles:

And it will soon result in the following edited book:

Retail establishments per capita have declined since records began.jpg
Storefronts can become spaces for learning, as in the Chinatown Library in Boston.
Storefronts can turn from spaces of consumption to spaces of production, as in this creative office
Many former storefronts in The Hague have been transformed into another use over the past century.

POST-TRANSACTIONAL STOREFRONT FUTURES

While urban retail continues to evolve and innovate, the number of retail establishments will undeniably decline in cities. After all, since records began in many Western countries nearly a century ago, the number of stores, bars, and restaurants per inhabitant has markedly decreased. Decades of retail consolidation, compounded by the rise of e-commerce and the recent COVID-19 pandemic forces us to ask the question:

What if our current vacant storefronts will never hold a store, bar, or restaurant again? How can we ensure their vital, viable urban future?


My research sees not just the urban threat in this question, but focuses on the opportunity that vacant storefronts present as spaces for socialization, care, growth, production, and expression. Initial explorations are featured in my recent book Street Level Architecture. Together with urbanist Emily Talen I have co-edited a special issue of the journal Built Environment on this topic, and I expect to expand this research in the near future. As a taste of what is to come, be sure to read our editorial on storefronts and main streets beyond retail.