Urban Identity: Creating Participation and Purpose in Places
News & Insights
News & Insights
Have you ever visited a place that felt so comfortable and inviting that you didn’t want to leave? Perhaps you were walking along a city street and found a mix of shops and cafes, small offices and apartments, parks and plazas, each full of people just hanging out and enjoying themselves. Maybe you explored a new neighborhood and immediately felt comfortable, like you fit right in and could be at home there. Creating a sense of community or belonging can be a challenge for physical places, but design has the power to inspire connection and spark emotion – even subconsciously. And this can be successful at any scale, from a whole city to a city block, and from a building to a park bench.
Take our own home, the city of Santa Monica, California, as an example. Like any city, there are several different neighborhoods, districts and individual destinations such as Santa Monica Pier, Palisades Park, Main Street, Montana Avenue, Third Street Promenade, and Santa Monica Place. And while each component has its own character, they’re knitted together by the culture of Santa Monica that is consistent throughout. Everywhere you go, you feel the presence of the ocean and the respect for history, architecture and design.
This isn’t by accident. In fact, Santa Monica’s Architectural Review Board is tasked with “establishing procedures and preserving existing areas of natural beauty and cultural importance, and assuring that buildings, structures, signs or other developments contribute to the preservation of Santa Monica’s reputation as a place of beauty, spaciousness and quality.” These are the threads of a shared culture that connect our community and make our 90,000 residents (and thousands more visitors) feel at home. It’s not about promoting sameness, but rather about leveraging design to bring forward the city’s image and identity, and to help both residents and visitors feel welcome and invited – to gain a sense of belonging, because they identify with the culture as well.
To help a city – or a district within a city – feel more connected culturally, it must be connected physically as well, and look like part of the urban fabric. This was one of the challenges with the Arizona Center in Phoenix. When it opened in 1990, the original Arizona Center played a big role in the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown Phoenix. But it was designed like many other mixed-use malls at the time: inward facing and enclosed. In 2017, new owners were motivated to re-imagine the property and reconnect it with the surrounding city, creating a gathering space that the community sorely needed. Walls were opened, if not removed altogether; the corner of the property at 3rd Street and Van Buren was turned into a public plaza that now welcomes people to enter and participate.
Signage and other designed elements are a big part of inviting participation, while celebrating the city’s culture, too. At Arizona Center, new signage (designed by our team at Altitude Design Office) is more colorful, reflecting the natural hues of the Southwest region. It’s more active, too, in every sense of that word. Large digital displays that hang above the plaza empower bolder, more dynamic storytelling – everything from branded graphics and thematic imagery to event announcements and advertising. Other elements are designed to shimmer and emit ambient sounds, becoming spatial elements that people interact with. Meanwhile street-level signage shows off the new Arizona Center brand; it enhances the pedestrian experience and invites passersby to enter and engage – some even accepting the invitation to touch, feel, and interact with the signage.
Public spaces in an urban property like Arizona Center can (and should) be activated with events like farmers markets or craft fairs, movie nights or concerts. These activities not only engage local residents, office workers, students and tourists, but also create a sense of community among the property’s commercial tenants – the retailers and restaurateurs, for example – who share the space as well as the motivation to keep it alive in between special events. This is the kind of gathering space that Arizona Center’s owners envisioned to help fill a neighborhood void. And as a result of the design strategy, today you see people hanging out and socializing, and others sitting quietly and working with laptops, all feeling right at home.
Back in Santa Monica, existing space is similarly being re-imagined with new forms of activity as the Cayton Children’s Museum prepares to open on the third floor of Santa Monica Place. By moving into an already popular retail and restaurant destination, the museum benefits from an existing vibrant community of Santa Monica Place visitors. And the current tenants of Santa Monica Place (i.e. shops and restaurants) benefit from a unique, new neighbor that will welcome kids and their caregivers, families and school groups. Cayton anticipates as many as 300,000 visitors per year – people who’ll start to feel at home in Santa Monica Place, too.
Engaging the community and encouraging participation is a big part of helping people feel a sense of belonging to a place. To be most successful this participation should be encouraged long before a space is built or renovated. Again considering an example like Arizona Center, many visitors are students from nearby Arizona State University or conference attendees from the Phoenix Convention Center just three blocks away – two user groups with distinct priorities. In this example, vacant tenant space could be used to display renovation plans, even in early conceptual phases. When these user groups are invited in to share ideas and opinions, they shed light on preferences and behaviors that inform the design. And even more importantly, they feel valued, and they’re much more likely to return to experience the new space as an active and engaged customer.
Other types of research will also inform the design strategy, such as photo surveys of the surrounding neighborhood and its natural as well as man-made elements. Observation and analysis of the way different groups move through and use the space is important too, while onsite interviews answer deeper questions about the who-what-when-where-why of visitors at any stage of the project.
If you want the community to feel a sense of ownership and take pride in a place, their ongoing feedback is critical. Today’s most successful designs are flexible and can shift and adapt as the community’s needs evolve. Guidelines that are put in place or enforced by groups like Santa Monica’s Architectural Review Board, or the Phoenix Zoning Ordinance, must consider long-term needs as well as historic precedents. In fact, downtown Phoenix’s signage ordinances did not initially support the new designs for Arizona Center, so Altitude Design Office developed a comprehensive master sign program for the project that helps the city anticipate future needs. Similar work is being done with the City of Santa Monica to support new types of signage at Santa Monica Place around the Cayton Children’s Museum.
As a result of these kinds of partnerships, ordinances become less about setting restrictions, and more about preserving culture and knitting together a community’s common threads. Design elevates the identity of a place and gives people something that they can identify with, too. Through design, the place becomes a destination where people feel comfortable and welcome to visit, linger, and return.