Future of Design March 4, 2024

How street-level activation can transform cities and spark economic success

Well-designed interfaces between urban buildings and the public realm can promote prosperity and create dynamic experiences. Urbanists have proven that such spaces significantly impact developments’ social and financial performance. Global success stories like Malmö Live in Sweden, Marine Gateway in Vancouver, and ARQ Vila Mariana in São Paulo reveal the positive power of civic engagement and strategic tenant selection.

“We know the city, and we saw that this location could provide an important connection between the old town and the new.”
Henrik Fajerson, Skanska’s business development director
A vibrant combination

When the city of Malmö, Sweden, announced a design competition for a new event center, the global development and construction company Skanska was eager to help enliven the cultural scene in its hometown. “Skanska was founded in Malmö and we have been here for over 100 years,” says Henrik Fajerson, Skanska’s business development director, who lives on the city’s outskirts and was involved in the design from the start. “We know the city, and we saw that this location could provide an important connection between the old town and the new.” Skanska worked with Schmidt Hammer Lassen, now Perkins&Will’s Copenhagen studio, and their winning design was built in 2015.

Malmö Live is a multi-use development, integrating a concert hall, a hotel with two restaurants and a coffee shop, and a conference center. Located near the historic city center and adjacent to a popular path along a canal, the building’s ground level is a magnet and a connector for tourists and locals alike.

Inside, lobby spaces for the separate functions flow together, welcoming the public with a meandering street-like experience. The shared interior spaces at street level create a far livelier scene than if each function were isolated in its own building. “Normally a concert hall lobby is only open for an hour before the concert starts,” Fajerson says. “But a hotel lobby is open 24/7. The mix creates a lot of people coming into the building throughout the day.”

Programming also contributes to the buzz. “The idea was that something should always be happening in the building,” Fajerson says, adding that the shared areas are frequently booked with art exhibitions and other events. “People say, ‘Let’s go to Malmö Live and see what’s happening there today.’”

The right retail mix

Despite recent difficulties in some retail sectors, “everyday retail” shops like convenience stores and pharmacies continue to thrive. The challenge is finding the right mix of tenants, which involves a combination of science and intuition, and then designing infrastructure that can support them.

For example, when PCI Developments began planning for Marine Gateway, a transit-integrated housing, office, and retail development in Vancouver, they considered the infrastructure required to support retail to be just as important as that for light rail, buses, and cars. “Retail can’t be an afterthought,” says Dan Turner, executive vice president at PCI Developments. PCI commissioned a retail study before they started planning the development, and the study determined that area residents’ needs were underserved by 250,000 to 300,000 square feet. Turner and his colleagues knew a planned light rail stop and related high-rise residential and office development would create even more demand.

After proving that retail would be a viable addition to Marine Gateway, the next step was to predict customers’ preferences and design infrastructure to support them. “Maybe it’s old school, but my mantra is ‘food, drugs, and alcohol,’” Turner says. “That’s what people need.” He and the design team planned convenience stores, pharmacies, banks, and a pub and liquor store with a one-acre loading dock to service the businesses. The team also added a cineplex, which required long, clear spans to accommodate seating and large screens.

The retail area is easily accessible via a bustling “high street” that arcs through the development. Commuters and area residents can conveniently purchase necessities, and the pub and cineplex provide opportunities for entertainment and socializing. The light rail line is fully integrated into the project, and buses, cabs, and rideshares are accessible at street level.

Marine Gateway has become a model for urban planning and development, helping spark a new law that encourages density near transit stations in British Columbia.

“When designing a project, we think beyond the common areas and apartments. We think about the concept of urban kindness.”
Tatiana Muszkat, Chief Marketing Officer at You, Inc.
Stepping up

A sloping street corner in Vila Mariana, one of the most desirable neighborhoods in São Paulo, Brazil, presented a unique opportunity to the development firm You,Inc. As the design team considered a new residential tower on the site, they wanted to create a ground-level experience that would creatively interface with the surrounding community.

Inspired by the public stair that connects the Apple store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to the Chicago River, the design team created a unique street-level experience for ARQ Vila Mariana. Topped by an office and residential tower, the development’s public courtyard and shopping area interface with the neighborhood via a wide stair. The courtyard is lined with greenery and retail shops, and as at Marine Gateway, everyday retail is a focus. “We generally choose shops that meet the needs of neighborhood residents,” Muszkat says. “We seek out businesses and services that make the life of these residents easier, like convenience stores, pharmacies, and small markets.”

The project was completed in 2023 and has been well-received by the neighborhood. A popular grocery store is already in operation and You, Inc. is negotiating with other retail tenants.

(Main Photo: Andrew Latreille)