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Developing DownTown

By Gary Robinette
University of Texas, Arlington

The goal at Bonita Springs is to transform this blighted, worn, declining community into the viable community It was in the early 1900's when U.S. 41 was the main route into picturesque southwest Florida and the Imperial River provided a glimpse of the untamed natural beauty that drew settlers to the area.

The period from 1945 to the late 1970's saw a decline of the "downtown" areas in many American cities. This occurred for a number of reasons including the new freeways around the edges of the city, the growth of new suburban shopping malls, large, rural corporate office parks and the general development of the "edge city."

In spite of this, many governmental facilities, corporate offices and entertainment areas have remained in or near the core of many cities of all sizes. Over the past few decades there have been efforts by landscape architects to deal with reversing the decline and deterioration of the center city. Some of these have been more successful than others. The initial surge to preserve the central business districts began with the downtown mall for Fresno, California and Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, Michigan in the late 1950's and early 1960's. This was followed by Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis and the Portland Transit Mall. All of these approaches were based on a simple, single dimensional approach to the problem. In the late 1980's and the early 1990's a much more sophisticated and broad based approach is being explored to reintroduce landscape development into the center of cities of all sizes. Those strategies include the introduction of landscape development by means of:

  • Adaptive reuse,
  • Entertainment districts,
  • Transit planning,
  • Festival marketplaces,
  • Farmer's markets,
  • Corporate development,
  • Center city malls,
  • Cultural or arts districts,
  • Inner city housing,
  • Waterfront development,
  • CBD group projects,
  • Convention centers,
  • Mini-parks,
  • City investment as leverage,
  • Local landscape ordinances

These approaches, among others, are leading to major areas of contribution from landscape architects in improving the quality of life in the "downtown" areas of the 21st century. Each approach is important, and provides new avenues for the landscape architect. The way in which landscape architects seize these opportunities will determine the future success of the profession.

Adaptive reuse

During the last few decades it has seemed inappropriate to tear down buildings and areas, which were structurally sound and historically significant. Instead, the character and the shells were retained and these were adapted to contemporary uses. This began at Ghiradelli Square and the Cannery in San Francisco and now includes Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia and Larimer Square in Denver, to mention only a few. Nearly every city has such an area, which uses old buildings and includes new planting, public art, paving, fountains and other landscape amenities.

Rendering by Paul Hess, Team Flan, Inc.
Old 41 Streetscape Bonita Springs, Florida

Entertainment districts

Rather than scattering nighttime entertainment facilities along a suburban strip development, many cities are gathering these in or near the downtown area. This calls for and results in new landscape planning and development in these central business districts. As an illustration, the Dallas West end uses a series of renovated, older converted warehouses for shops, stores, restaurants and nightclubs. The surrounding streetscape has been redesigned and upgraded to provide another building block in a more vital center city.

In the Baltimore Inner Harbor Development a fountain was incorporated into the overhead walkway system, which enabled pedestrians to enter the complex by going over city streets. Landscape Architects: Wallace, Roberts & Todd. PHOTOS by Gary Robinette

Transit facilities

As new subways and transit systems have been developed in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Denver, San Antonio, Dallas and Los Angeles, the urban landscape planning associated with these has been a very important component in the center city. In San Antonio, for example, three landscape architectural firms worked together with three governmental bodies to redesign and redevelop the streetscape in a very appropriate manner for this downtown area. In Denver, the transit mall is a major component tying the center city together and providing an important outdoor people place.

An aerial view of the Harborplace project

Festival marketplaces

These are very conscious efforts to create exciting downtown shopping areas, which have a major impact on the direction and extent of urban landscape development. South Street Seaport in New York City, Harborplace in Baltimore and Seaside in Miami are examples of similar projects in Jacksonville, Tampa and New Orleans. All of these are partially successful because they make extensive use of quality landscape development to attract people back into the center of the city.

The 16th Street Transit Mall in downtown Denver resulted in new paving, planting and site furnishings. Landscape Architects: Hanna-Olin Partnership. Photos by Gary Robinette.

Farmer's markets

As an antidote to the ubiquitous high tech with which we are surrounded, there has grown up the "high touch" of farmers markets in many cities. This is where there is a direct relationship between the producer and the consumer. These outdoor markets are being institutionalized, redesigned and made a part of the urban landscape. As such, they now contain trees, shrubs, ground covers and vines as well as fountains, decorative paving and abundant seating. The Dallas Farmer's Market has been redesigned to make it much more humane, inviting and exciting.

Grand Central Business District model photo by Rex McManamy. Illustrations and model are both part of the master plan for the Grand Central Business Improvement District in Manhattan.
"View of U.N. Way along East 43rd Street" (above) and "Storefront and Street Improvements along East 42nd Street" (below), illustrate downtown revitalization plans, rendered by artist Jim Piatt.

Corporate Investment

Many major development projects designed during the last decade have been much more aware and sensitive to the need for high quality urban landscape development. In some cases, older properties have been redesigned specifically to upgrade the site development. In downtown Los Angeles a major bank building incorporates rooftop landscape development using trees, shrubs, ground cover, seasonal color, fountains and public art. A few blocks away, where there is a major change in grade, the stairs themselves are a landscape and a work of public art. In Dallas, a developer has planted a large grove of trees on property he will not develop for a few years to create a temporary park forest. Later he will move and use these trees in the project as it is built. Rather than leaving vacant land, it is planted and used as a nursery to store and grow trees.

Grand Central Business District, in Manhattan, is a 52-block business zone in New York's east midtown area surrounding Grand Central Terminal, focused on 42nd St. The project will entail an all encompassing rehabilitation of the area's streetscapes, including paving, lighting graphics, signage, street furnishings, trees and plantings. The District is an innovative public/private initiative led by Grand Central Partnership, a consortium of property owners, retailers, and business interests. Master Planning and Design: Benjamin Thompson & Associates, Inc.

Center city malls

While the large, covered, heated and air conditioned shopping malls have been the hallmark of suburban life for years, it is now being adapted and moved to downtown sites. Projects in Philadelphia, Columbus, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Phoenix and San Diego all point the way in which such projects can be used to upgrade the urban landscape. Around the perimeter, new planting, paving, signage and graphics are installed. Within, abundant planting, seating, fountains and public art enrich the central urban setting. City malls are one more way in which the downtown areas are being revitalized and the urban landscape is being made more rich and usable.

The center of downtown Colorado Springs contains office, civic, and retail activities. The Downtown Action Plan, which describes the goals for development, calls for widened sidewalks on Tejon Avenue from 15 to 20 feet. The eight-foot area closest to the buildings is dedicated to merchant display, sidewalk cafes, and as a place for pedestrians to window-shop. The eight-foot path in the middle will be made of brick and provide an unobstructed pedestrian pathway. The remaining four-feet closest to the curb will be designated for pedestrian amenities and furniture-benches, flower pots, and utilities such as parking meters and traffic lights. The side streets in the Pedestrian District will also receive improvements coordinated with those on Tejon Street. The sidewalks will remain at fifteen feet to allow additional parking.

Cultural or arts districts

Museums, theaters and performing arts centers have often been scattered throughout the community. Recently, efforts have been made to gather these into arts or cultural districts in or near the downtown core of the city. These efforts have given rise to a great deal of related landscape planning and design in the downtown of many major cities. This began in New York at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and is now replicated in Phoenix, Denver, Fort Worth and Dallas, to mention only a few. In the Dallas Arts District, the new Dallas Museum of Art is near the Meyerson Symphony Hall and other arts related institutions. All of this is tied together by a complex and elegant streetscape design developed by a landscape architectural firm.

Pikes Peak Avenue at night demonstrates lighting, which enhances pedestrian walkways at night. Between Tejon Street and Cascade, it is designed as a special street that can be programmed for three functions: parking and circulation. special markets and large civic events.

Inner city housing

One of the dehumanizing factors in most center cities is the fact that at night everyone goes home to the suburbs and the downtown streets are empty. There is no way that significant commercial activity can be sustained with only daytime traffic during the weekdays. New residential opportunities are being developed in cities such as Baltimore, Fort Worth, Denver and in many other places. Because of this there is now a day and night population who will support the cost of improving the downtown landscape. Outdoor restaurants, mini-parks, plazas and other gathering places call for paving, planting, lighting and other site development.

The plans for the core district of downtown Colorado Springs are to create a Pedestrian District with improved streetscape with Tejon Street (right) as the central spine. The design intends for pedestrian activity to be highest along Tejon and its side streets. Currently Tejon Street serves the shopping area, but is one way for five blocks between Bijou and Vermijo. By making Tejon a two-way street access to shops and businesses will increase and traffic will slow down to be more compatible with the pedestrian nature of the area. "A Way Finding System," a highly visible, easy to understand sign system, will guide motorists to parking areas and pedestrians to destinations.


In the past, many local communities turned their back on rivers, lakes or even oceans. Waterfronts were often unsightly and were largely devoted to commerce and industry. During the last ten to fifteen years massive programs have been undertaken to develop promenades, parks and viewing areas along these waterfronts. This has had significant impact on the types and location of urban landscape revitalization. More of this will continue well into the next century, as this is a growing area of involvement for landscape architects.

To make Pikes Peak Avenue appear as a special street, the Downtown Action Plan calls for a landscaped median down the Avenue from Nevada to Cascade. The Plan calls for increasing the angle of parking on the side streets and adding parking along the median. This increases the number of on-street parking spaces by approximately 25%. The trolley will be an added convenience for shoppers and those making trips within downtown. Artist renderings by Steve Wilensky of EDAW.

Central business district group projects

In nearly every large American city, there is a chamber of commerce or property owners group dealing with downtown problems. Some of that effort, in recent years, is directed toward improving the appearance of and the quality of life in the downtown area. The role of such a group is catalytic and synergistic in that they seldom carry the full load but cooperate and bring together other groups with an interest in solving the problems. In Dallas, the Central Dallas Association has been a moving force on the Main Street project which is involved with providing new sidewalks, street lighting, signage and graphics and street furnishings all along one street which stretches from the center city into the Deep Ellum neighborhood of small shops, stores, restaurants, nightclubs, galleries and artist studios. In Tulsa, Oklahoma such an association was largely responsible for one of the most successful downtown shopping malls still in existence. This is one more group and mechanism which is, in some small way, responsible for downtown landscape revitalization.

Front Street, San Francisco, is part of the Downtown Pedestrian Street Improvement Program which is a vital element of the Downtown Open Space program. The Public Open Space plaque (middle), is located on Front Street to indicate that revitalization efforts were part of the requirements for office developments. PHOTOS by Evan Rose.

Convention centers

In an effort to attract conventions and their attendant tourist dollars, many cities have significantly expanded their convention facilities. Seattle, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Dallas all have such massive programs, which have included a great deal of new inner city landscape development. A block square was renovated next to Kemper Arena in Kansas City by a major landscape architectural firm. In Dallas, a large new public park is being planned and designed, with a significant public sculpture, immediately adjacent to the convention center expansion.

Bayside Marketplace is located on a 22-acre site including open space along Biscayne Bay in Miami' Florida. Bayside also connects with the 208 slip Miami Marina. The developments comprised of two sets of parallel pavilions that are adjacent to the edge of the marina with an open-air area at the bend or turning point between the north and south pavilions. Two smaller pavilions are on either side of an entry plaza, which leads to the urban plaza adjacent to the marina. There is also an octagonal restaurant building and a 1200 car parking garage. PHOTOS are courtesy of Harvey Rubenstein.


Land prices are generally so high in these central locations that large parks are too expensive to build and maintain, so they are often out of the question. Therefore a series of smaller plazas or mini-parks are included in development plans or added after the fact. These are, at times, put in SLOIP, or "spaces left over in planning". The first of these to receive wide publicity were Paley and Greenacre Parks in New York City. Now they have proliferated into nearly every major city, enhancing the downtown landscape.

City investment as leverage

The high cost of downtown landscape revitalization is often beyond the financial resources of any one entity. Due to this factor, public-private partnerships often result in the most successful physical urban landscape revitalizations. A city often gives tax or zoning incentives to a developer who provides landscape amenities at street level or on rooftops. The public sector may speed up street or sidewalk improvements in response to a private initiative. Most of the projects mentioned were a result of this type of public-private cooperation, though the circumstances and incentives may vary from place to place depending on various personalities, politics and economics. By way of illustration, the Dallas Farmer's Market revitalization is a public initiative anticipating private investment on the periphery of the Market.

Local landscape ordinances

Over the past twenty or thirty years more and more communities are passing regulations which mandate certain minimal levels of landscape development on every project. As these are implemented and expanded, the overall level of site enhancement has improved all over the city, not just the inner city. This makes some landscape enhancement mandatory, not optional, as it has been in the past. Generally these deal with screening parking lots and loading zones or storage areas, the use of street trees to provide shade and separation in parking lots. These do have an impact on the thinking and approach to dealing with the landscape or the appearance of the city.

Landscape Architect: Alberto Perez Associates. PHOTOS by Steve Rosenthal.

In summary, downtown landscape design has increased and will continue to increase for the foreseeable future because it is based on a wide variety of factors, not just a single approach or element. With the growing concern for the environment and the desire for an improved quality of life, people don't want to work and live in crowded, polluted and unpleasant surroundings. Private developers and public officials now know what landscape architects have known for years. The forefathers of the landscape architecture profession have led the way. Now new generations need to respond to the opportunities with new and innovative approaches and solutions. The need, the opportunity and the precedent exists in these examples.

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June 18, 2019, 8:58 pm PDT

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