Urban Pockets: Creating Big City Feel in Smaller Places

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked one of the biggest dislocations we’ve seen in the U.S. in generations. Given the option to work remotely from anywhere, millions of people fled traditional big city job centers in search of something different – more open space, lower cost of living, shorter commutes, better weather, or just a change of scenery. Now that the dust has settled, we know a lot more about how people want to live – and it looks pretty urban.

The big cities didn’t crumble, as some predicted. Even as offices remain stubbornly empty, people have chosen to stay in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, etc., because we want to be near other creative and ambitious people, to eat great food and enjoy amazing culture. Stories about an exodus from San Francisco to Austin are now giving way to ones about the reverse migration; just try finding an apartment in New York City!

But a lot of city dwellers did move to smaller cities – places like Nashville, Raleigh, Columbus – and have chosen to stay. What we’re finding is that while they may embrace having a little extra space and slightly lower rent, they miss some of the benefits of greater density.

So what’s the solution, both for these transplants and the cities that want to keep them? The answer lies in what I’ll call “urban pockets”.

While it’s not possible to create new urban neighborhoods overnight, many mid-sized cities can fairly quickly create discreet new places that have enough mixed-use density to attract people and jobs and re-create what we love about big cities. These urban pockets represent a new kind of development that can capture the genuine experiences that many still seek urban fabric, walkability, great arts and architecture, and the social energy characteristic of bigger cities.

Fortunately, these mid-sized cities have an abundance of underutilized sites that can be repurposed as small oases of urbanism. Often the result of misguided urban regeneration of the sixties, these range from obsolete strip malls to parking lots or even vacant buildings. While there are different models for an urban pocket, there are usually a few key components needed to create a community network for a multi-disciplinary and inspirational day.

A mixed-use formula of multi-tenant office along with relatively dense housing are vital building blocks; add in an orchestrated mix of retail and entertainment or culture venues and voila! The idea is to create a place that doesn’t shut down at 5 p.m. or sit empty during the day. In short, it’s the 15-minute city concept that’s taken off in recent years – where you can work, shop, dine and have access to critical services, all within walking distance from your home.

Finding the right anchor with one or two tenants—usually a corporate headquarters or major academic institution – can galvanize both activity and development. But that’s a hard one to find and not necessarily the only way, especially at a time when big office tenants are hard to come by. Creating a creative district may also work initially as an orchestrated and planned zone attracting innovators and creatives. Pop up exhibits and even performance venues of different scales reinforce the urban pocket as an experience worth finding.

In fact, with so many people asking employers the hard question – why should I return to the office?!? – we’re finding that these types of amenities provide the only real answer. Community and innovation are interlinked for most people and urban pockets are all about providing the perfect conditions for productive and enjoyable work. (In a previous article, I described how private and public investment in science facilities can foster development and knowledge).

Housing is another critical component, and often the piece that can be built first and most quickly to create demand for the other components. The most authentic urban places don’t just include “luxury” market-rate apartments filled with young professionals, they welcome families, seniors and people of all incomes by including affordable housing and larger units. With a diverse population comes the need for a mix of functions and programming geared towards multiple age groups, from senior centers to daycare, k-12 schools and sports facilities. With the right density, all of these activities can be accommodated in a fairly compact site.

The last piece? Great architecture and planning! Even the smartest mix of activities will fail without well-designed buildings and shared spaces. There are many models across the country, in all different shapes and sizes – places like Cambridge, Massachusetts or Alexandria, Virginia that have great history; master-planned places like Reston, Virginia and Columbia, Maryland. West Palm Beach has emerged as a great example of a relatively new hub that through architecture and curated public event space speaks to an authentic Floridian pedestrian community.

It’s not always easy to create an authentic place from scratch, especially when you’re not expanding or building upon existing urban fabric. In lieu of urban fabric, brownfield warehouse and former industrial districts in Europe and the US have been fertile ground for placemaking. Even China, the land of overnight cities of spectacle, has embraced these opportunities as being ideal pedestrian enclaves, rich in historic texture and iconic placemaking.

While urban pockets offer many monetary and human benefits, there are also challenges. It’s critical to take a bespoke, local approach that fits each market. From a regulatory standpoint, density regulation/zoning requirements, and particularly public approvals that can take time. And perhaps most challenging is finding the right phasing to achieve critical mass quickly and sustainably.

If we can overcome and embrace the regulatory challenges as a mutually beneficial process, urban pockets can provide a path for smaller cities -- and even some suburban areas – to develop sustainably, encouraging more walking and public transit, and less reliance on cars. With so much interest in wellness and health, urban pockets can provide support for people are looking for healthier lifestyles and want to live in places that have access to the outdoors, light, and activity. Above all, urban pockets provide the face-to-face communication that continues to be crucial for civic life, dialogue, and innovation. The benefits of urbanity are a win-win for local communities and a model for national growth.

Peter Schubert is a partner at Ennead, an international architecture firm based in New York.