And the ground floor of our cities is primed for transformation.
The fabric of our cities is a synergistic patchwork of private and public interests. Street-level shared space, from retail storefronts to neighborhood parklets, is the infrastructure of civic life. At its best it nurtures a sense of collectivity, facilitates creative and cultural exchange, and drives business value — all while meeting city dweller needs.
But this vital social fabric has suddenly unravelled. Frayed after long decades of uneven development, it was left vulnerable to the shock of lockdowns. Now, it must be rewoven, collectively, so that commercial and community values support and affirm each other.
How might we begin to rebuild our streetscapes to be more resilient in times of uncertainty and volatility? Operating at the intersection of social change, shifting business opportunity, and strategic design, we offer the following set of principles to guide this process.
Repurpose and reprogram around new demands.
Storefront retail collapse is a cascading crisis that affects us both individually and collectively. And even as basic provisions are disappearing, the demands of communities and businesses have shifted dramatically. As we turn towards recovery, how might we address all of these challenges in unison? How can entrepreneurs and communities co-create the change they’d like to see?
The damage the past year has wrought upon storefronts is readily apparent. Many businesses have outright vanished; others operate at minimal capacity. The cumulative effect is one of widespread emptiness: palpable gaps in once-vibrant neighborhoods, and in the lives of those who relied on them.
What’s less apparent are the shifts in demand. As we remodel our lifestyles, experimenting with how we work and socialize, we start to speculate on ways the city might better support us. Surveying the landscape of empty space and unmet need, there’s vast opportunity — if we’re imaginative and ambitious enough to seize it.
The first initiative would be to repurpose retail spaces to serve new functions. This would diversify and energize the street and tailor to the emerging demand of the neighborhood. Why couldn’t a vacant shop be reconfigured as a community-run preschool pod? Or as a neighborhood package depot, where folks pick up deliveries they missed at home? Or as a take-one, leave-one library?
Stores that have managed to survive, but are struggling, should embrace new types of program. Assessing a business’ core capabilities vis-a-vis the shifting landscape of demand will yield new ideas. Similarly, collaborating with local government and business improvement districts (BIDs) would open up exciting areas of experimentation. Why shouldn‘t a cocktail bar offer coworking space during otherwise quiet daytime hours? Or a local grocery host a community supported agriculture (CSA) initiative?
Get personal and expand services IRL.
Offline retailers serve an essential social function. As they look to adapt to new contexts, emphasizing the unique value of face-to-face interaction will be key. How might we hone service narratives to create a sense of discovery, of browsing, of the unexpected?
The explosion of e-commerce during the pandemic may, at first, seem to threaten brick and mortar retail. But it’s not a zero-sum game. The increasing share of purchases made online could actually be liberating for the streetscape, effectively expanding the range of what’s possible. What new experiences can physical stores feature to engage both target consumers and the public at large?
The pandemic has generated new sets of expectations and behaviors. With many boutiques adopting a limited capacity, one-in one-out policy, they have refocused their customer experience on a single user. This lends clarity and sincerity to their story, which makes a lasting impression. The pandemic has also brought attention to the relevance of micro interactions — those small service moments that provide a customer with an authentic sense of care and attention. Expanding hospitality-inspired services will yield outsize benefits.
As the storefront becomes a more personal consumer touchpoint, companies should work to identify the deeply human needs of those they engage. Then retail spaces can be tailored to meet those needs — rather than simply tallying transactions. What if garages offered to wash cars? What if hair salons offered small bites in addition to the typical coffee or tea? What if an apartment building offered dog walking as a service, to residents and non-residents alike?
Build on your neighborhood’s unique sense of place.
Lockdowns have forced most of us to stay close to home. Because of that, we’ve become more attentive to this scale of space, where the anonymity of the crowd is punctuated by the familiarity of a neighbor. How might we leverage this appreciation into a new, community-level placemaking? How can contextualism fuel renewal?
Think of a city block that feels particularly distinctive. What juxtapositions of movement, textures, and aromas arise? Does it feel homogeneous and flat, or eclectic and organic? Enter a bookshop, clothing boutique, or record store, and notice the feelings that wash over you. Browsing, you lose track of time, and yet you become remarkably present with your senses. Amidst that indeterminacy, there is an expansive feeling of possibility: What might we come across that will surprise or enrich us? How will it change us? It’s different in every neighborhood. This is the alchemy of place.
Retooling ground-level spaces to heighten a feeling of “neighborhood” is no easy task, but emerging from lockdown, it will be widely appreciated. Perhaps stores can work together to inspire a sense of something larger? Can they invite us to linger, connecting us to one another and to our environment more deeply? How can they write themselves into our habits?
A first, essential move is to provide the infrastructure — both physical and legal. It may be as simple as ordinances that allow local businesses to take over sidewalks and streets more frequently, or zoning initiatives that distribute services more broadly across denser neighborhoods. Why shouldn’t we see more markets on streets and live music on medians? Restaurants have begun to inhabit streets in new ways; why don’t we encourage them to go further, to become a kind of living room where you can socialize for hours?
Nourish a spirit of openness and inclusion.
The central role of commerce in the production and operation of public space and third space is marred by extremes of privilege and exclusion. The past year has highlighted inbuilt biases and prompted a reevaluation of priorities. How might we transform our shared spaces into a truly public benefit?
Brands, institutions, and municipalities collectively own the legacy of exclusion and must now correct regressive tendencies. Those who choose to work actively in this stand to gain a lot as the tides of progress roll on.
Making the new commons truly accessible will nurture a sense of collective wellbeing and a more dynamic and vital public. Brands that have driven difficult conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion have won the authentic support of deeply engaged audiences. But these conversations must push beyond the scope of public relations and into tangible initiatives with demonstrable impact.
Social and commercial activity are entwined: a healthy public realm is a crucial economic infrastructure. Cities, for their part, must ensure that public life is just as vibrant in public spaces not sponsored by retail transactions. This might happen through investments in public programming, awareness campaigns, or initiatives that expand access to existing facilities and services. Public restrooms relieve shoppers of a kind of deadline to get home, while benches and tables encourage passersby to take advantage of delis’ to-go offerings, and so forth.
Engage a broader group of stakeholders and partners.
The assumption that market incentives are the best way to identify and provide for peoples’ needs often goes unquestioned. But that is changing. How might we diversify the voices represented in decision-making to create a more socially responsible, and thus resilient, city?
The idea of community, of a shared sense of place, is not at odds with the nature of commerce. The interests of business and the communities they serve have always been closely linked. Now is a unique opportunity to bring them into closer alignment.
Over-indexing on the transactive aspect of retail risks leaving cities out of balance, as evident in areas saturated by franchises but somehow lacking basics like groceries and pharmacies. Coming out of the pandemic, there is much to explore here, and an even greater appetite for experimentation.
How can we — as brands, cities, and individuals — recalibrate incentives while cultivating long-term value for all involved? What new forms of ownership and entrepreneurship can be modeled to accommodate new forms of land use? Can privately owned public spaces (POPS) embrace input from local community stakeholders? If retail is overbuilt, can precious ground-level space be reclaimed as indoor parks, libraries, schools, housing amenities, even workspaces?
Simply returning to business (and public life) as usual will fail to capture new opportunities. So much has changed since 2019, opening up exciting new questions for anyone curious enough to speculate. At this pivotal moment, having these kinds of conversations, in an expanded forum, is essential. We owe it to our cities, to our communities, and to ourselves.
Rapt Studio is a strategic design consultancy. We help brands navigate the complex challenges of this ever-changing world. www.raptstudio.com