Mixed-use developments will make cities smarter and grow efficiently, according to regional architects

The future of mixed-use developments lies in integrating neighbourhoods rather than just focusing on one single building, according to thought leaders across the design and build spectrum.

Success requires collaboration between concept architects, developers, construction specialists and operators who must “embrace the new urbanism”.

There have always been mixed-use developments, starting with a shop owner who lived in or rented the space above his establishment – but today the term commonly refers to a greater diversification across retail, corporate facilities, residential and hospitality.

George Efstathiou, formerly a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill now runs his own firm, Efstathiou Consulting. According to him, the growth and efficiency of a modern city can be aided by mixed-use projects.

“We have seen evidence and heard much discussion regarding the migration of the world’s population back into cities,” said the US-based architect.

“It’s important for a strong vision to be developed by municipalities that will stimulate and support long-term growth. It is equally important for planners, architects, engineers, real estate developers and others who shape the built environment to embrace the new urbanism, mixed-use development and smart growth strategies as they are key to the long term growth.”

George Efstathiou. Photo courtesy Murrindie Frew/ITP Media Group

Efstathiou emphasised the importance of defining the term ‘mixed-use’ early on in any project. “Basically, [a] mised-use development is a type of urban development or real estate strategy that blends different uses, such as residential, commercial, cultural, institutional or industrial uses, and physically and functionally integrates them into a singular form or plan,” he said. “Mixed-use developments can be discussed in the context of two basic and distinct development scenarios. The first scenario stacks two or more uses in one building and is often referred to as vertical mixed-use.”

Efstathiou said the second scenario is a “horizontal approach”, which is usually larger in scale and combines single use and mixed-use buildings in an arrangement that creates a walkable environment. The residents can work, live and play in what he called “a more compact life sphere”.

“This has various applications at different scales in a city and obvious benefits for its growth – it can create positive density and diversity while minimising energy use, creating efficiencies in infrastructure and abating impact on the environment by reducing dependency on the car,”
he said.

“This approach also creates a 24/7 environment, which enlivens the city. Single use plans such as an office, industrial or even residential districts can become inactive outside of normal hours of use and can create dead spots in the city.”

When thinking about mixed-use, Efstathiou said one must place a high level of importance on the city and district scale and not necessarily on a single building. He added that there has been a recent resurgence of
this planning approach in cities worldwide, which he commonly referred to as the ‘new urbanism’.

This employs a planning and development strategy based on the principles of how cities and towns have naturally grown and have been built for the last several centuries.

“When you study and experience older cities you will see walkable blocks and streets featuring places of employment, residential and retail in close proximity,” said Efstathiou.

“The new urbanism focuses on this basic principle, human-scaled urban design and also employs ‘smart growth’, which combines urban planning with transportation strategies and features growth in compact walkable urban centres to avoid sprawl.”

Neil Van Del Veen. Image courtesy of Efraim Evidor/ITP Media Group

Dubai-based urbanist Neil van der Veen of RMJM pointed out that mixed-use projects are complex developments to put together. Whether they are a single plot or large masterplan sites, the feasibility and business case is far more complex with many more interdependencies. For this reason, he said he has found many clients shying away from them.

However van der Veen feels these projects are vitally important for creating good urban environments
and vibrant cities, especially in developing areas.

He said, “While the terms ‘mixed-use’ and ‘24 hour live-work-play’ get thrown [around] a lot, it is understanding the relationships between the different uses that make [a project] a mixed-use development. It’s not just about having these three uses in one place.

“This is the opportunity architects and masterplanners should be looking at. How (dis)connected, how (in)dependent, and how we get mutual benefit on a commercial, social and environmental level from the various components of the development.”

Van der Veen predicts that the future of mixed-use projects is more sophisticated developments, with more sub-uses and more social infrastructure put together in more complex ways. This, he said, would be driven by developers recognising the value they can add by offering their buyers and tenants lifestyle choices.

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