Don’t Get Mixed Up on Mixed-Use

Taking a break from Geoff Dyer’s series on town centers this week with a refresher course on the simple elements of mixed-use development.

Citizens, politicians, and planning officials have embraced the need to allow for walkable neighborhoods across North America and mixed-use is an essential component for achieving walkability. However, the term mixed-use has held different meanings in different places over the past 40 years or so.

For example, mixed-use zones usually had to declare a primary and secondary use with both use’s development standards redundantly stacked together and the primary use, such as residential, controlling the building’s configuration, orientation and disposition — thereby marginalizing the building’s ability to effectively host other commercial or office uses. Also, a mixed-use zoning designation meant that a land owner had the right to ‘choose’ a specific use, such as either Commercial or Residential. While the zoning district had a mix of uses, the implementation was single-use.

Today, the most common misunderstanding I find about mixed-use is that most people think it equates, on any street or in any context, to a shopfront with housing above.

In short, mixed-use makes for three-dimensional, pedestrian-oriented places that layer compatible land uses, public amenities, and utilities together at various scales and intensities. This variety of uses allows for people to live, work, play and shop in one place, which then becomes a destination for people from other neighborhoods. As defined by The Lexicon of the New Urbanism, mixed-use is multiple functions within the same building or the same general area through superimposition or within the same area through adjacency… from which many of the benefits are… pedestrian activity and traffic capture.

While mixed-use can take on many forms, it’s typically categorized as either A) vertical mixed-use buildings; B) horizontal mixed-use blocks; or C) mixed-use walkable neighborhoods.

Vertical Mixed-Use Building: Combines different uses in the same building. Lower floors should have more public uses with more private uses on the upper floors. For example, the ground floor could have retail, second floor and up having professional offices, and uppermost floors being some form of residential, such as flats or a hotel. In more urban areas, an entire block or neighborhood may be composed of vertical mixed-use buildings.

Horizontal Mixed-Use Blocks: Combines single-use buildings on distinct parcels in a range of land uses within one block. In more urban areas, this approach avoids the financing and coding complexities of vertical layered uses while achieving the goal of placemaking that is made possible by bringing together complementary uses in one place. In less urban areas, horizontal mixed-use offers the advantage of sharing utilities and amenities while providing an easier to build and entitle mix of uses within a walkable block circumscribed by thoroughfares.

Mixed-Use Walkable Neighborhoods: With the infinite number of various possibilities, these places combine vertical and horizontal use mixing in an area ideally within a 5 to 10 minute walking distance (a Pedestrian Shed) or quarter mile radius of a neighborhood center.

Mixed-use Neighborhood (San Diego’s Uptown District: Both vertical and horizontal mixed-use throughout, located on a vibrant Main Street. Voted one of America’s 10 great neighborhoods by the American Planning Association in 2007). Click for larger view.

We all live more complex lives than simply living in one pod of development, working in another, shopping in a different one, and then driving to recreate. For example, I’m writing this from my upstairs office, around the corner from my favorite restaurant and down the street from a wonderful canyon I hike with my kids. The mixing of uses is a catalyst to building complete, compact, complex, and convivial neighborhoods — as well as competitive Town Centers — because it facilitates efficient access to where people live, work, play and shop via walking, biking, transit and/or cars. Conventional zoning, financing, and approval processes are antithetical to mixed-use and, unless your town has a strong history of it, I recommend making it possible and probable via a flexible Form-Based Code. This place-based zoning tool allows for mixed-use Main Streets, Town Centers, neighborhood centers, and everyday neighborhoods, all by-right.

–Howard Blackson

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.


Filed under Back of the Envelope, Development, Financing, Planning and Design

6 responses to “Don’t Get Mixed Up on Mixed-Use

  1. Excellent distinctions, Howard… thanks for posting this!

  2. Matt Korner

    I enjoyed this article thoroughly. The only exception with it I take is the notion that more private uses always belong on the upper levels of buildings, even though I acknowledge that activity, eyes-on-the-street, and eyes-from-the-street must always be maintained at the street level.

    Livable outdoor space on rooftops should be shared as much as possible since it is in such demand; also, joining the ground and roof planes in the way that architect Bjarke Ingels often does can effectively expand the public realm and create more complex and interesting places in a sort of urban topography that encourages a moderate amount of climbing and other easy physical activity. His “architectural alchemy” concept of mixed-use is especially valuable since it optimizes the placement of various uses in all three dimensions.

    Similarly, ESRI has developed software for planning transit-oriented development that maximizes the value captured from transit and from elevated views by playing with the placement of various uses in three dimensions.

    Additionally, the best vistas are usually found nearer the tops of buildings, so higher-level restaurants and other public and semi-public places in the upper reaches of buildings can create great experiences that allow everyone, even those who may not be able to afford penthouse apartments, to enjoy the elevated views that taller and more urban buildings are able to provide.

  3. Great point! Yes, hotels do a great job of having ‘more private’ upper floors with public rooftops, but very urban places can be non-private/residential throughout. However, know that greater access is allowed to ground floors than any other floor in the building. So, I would recommend basements and rooftops as semi-private public areas, the ground floor is the most accessible, thereby the most public. Thank you for reading and writing.

  4. Paddy Steinschneider

    Howard, thank you. This is very timely for me, since it provides examples and answers for points that I have been trying to get across on a project here in New York. Always nice to be able to say, “I’m not just giving you my opinion. Look at what the venerable Howard Blackson has to say!”

  5. Pingback: A Primer on the Many Forms of Mixed Use | APA News Feed

  6. Pingback: Get your Multi-Family into a Walkable Town Center! | PlaceShakers and NewsMakers

Shake things up:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s