Active centers – interactive edges: The rise and fall of ground floor frontages

Abstract

The ground floors of buildings are a key element of the urban experience, yet the dynamics that shape frontages are largely unknown. This article delves into the forces and patterns behind the transforming relationship between architecture and public space in Western urban cores over the past century. After defining a methodology for structurally measuring the interactivity of ground floor frontages over time, the study focuses on two case study urban cores of Detroit, Michigan and The Hague, Netherlands. Through a combination of narrative historiography, detailed mapping and statistical studies a set of recommendations is generated to help urban designers and planners better understand and counter frontage decline. The two seemingly disparate cities are demonstrated to have undergone remarkably similar patterns of frontage interactivity erosion, with outcomes diverging as a result of an often reinforcing set of forces. Only upon understanding frontages as social, economic, cultural, political and technological constructs with physical, functional and connotative effects on public space will the profession be able to effectively steer the future of the architecture of public life.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Interactive frontages can provide visual stimulation, which has been shown to correlate with environmental preference if sufficiently balanced with coherence (Kaplan, 1987; Kaplan et al, 1989). The multi-sensorial stimulus of frontages is perfected in designed retail environments (for example,Gladwell, 2004).

  2. 2.

    The intervals were defined by data availability, which led to roughly 10–15-year intervals for Detroit (1911, 1921, 1929, 1937, 1951, 1961, 1977, 1988, 2001 and 2011) and 25-year overlapping intervals for The Hague (1911, 1937, 1961, 1988 and 2011).

  3. 3.

    The typical nomenclature for a Dutch urban core is ‘inner city’, derived from the fact that most urban cores were inside a defensive perimeter during the medieval era.

  4. 4.

    The core-frame model of central business districts demonstrated that a significant percentage of the commercial activity and land value in American central cities was condensed in only a few blocks, surrounded by large tracts of lower land values and marginal land uses such as parking and warehousing, in Horwood and Boyce (1959).

  5. 5.

    Not all of Detroit’s downtown periphery struggled economically. Before its demolition in the 1960s, Hastings Street thrived as the commercial and cultural center of the city’s African-American population. Nevertheless, the street was completely dismantled and replaced with a freeway, with surviving businesses relocated to the northeast of downtown.

  6. 6.

    This value is calculated by multiplying the cumulative length of frontages in each tier by 4 - the tier value: e.g. shops have value 3, dwellings 2, offices 1, parking lots 0.

  7. 7.

    The Gini Index of the average interactivity of street segments – measuring the uneven division of interactivity between streets – has increased more than 200 per cent in Detroit and 10 per cent in The Hague.

  8. 8.

    The calculations filtered out streets which underwent urban renewal projects, as these were drastic, external forces. Taking renewal into account, 75 per cent of Detroit’s and 42 per cent of The Hague’s core streets experienced accelerated decline.

  9. 9.

    Measured by comparing the average interactivity in street segments in the time interval immediately before and after a renewal project was constructed.

  10. 10.

    Measured by drawing a one-block radius around urban renewal areas, and measuring the decline of the percentage of businesses in the street frontages in these blocks over the lifetime of the renewal project.

  11. 11.

    This fear is further discussed in Fogelson (2001) and Isenberg (2004). The Pensacola Syndrome refers to the erosion of urban cores by cars to the point where its value as a destination is lost, as described by Duany et al (2000).

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Kickert, C. Active centers – interactive edges: The rise and fall of ground floor frontages. Urban Des Int 21, 55–77 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/udi.2015.27

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Keywords

  • interactive frontages
  • urban morphology
  • retail
  • downtowns
  • public space