Future of placemaking: Engaging places need affordable homes, mobility, authenticity
By Guest Columnists BILL TUNNELL, JERRY SPANGLER and TOM WALSH, leaders of TSW, a planning, architecture and landscape architecture firm
Recently we had the pleasure of celebrating our firm’s 30th anniversary. It was both gratifying and humbling to look back on three decades of designing buildings, communities and green spaces, and reflect on how fortunate we have been to participate in what has arguably been a revolutionary time period in building design and placemaking.
From the beginning, the three of us – Bill Tunnell, Jerry Spangler and Tom Walsh – adopted a collaborative approach to our work, combining our expertise in architecture, planning and landscape architecture. We are grateful for the professionals who have joined us along the way, and are excited to think about the strong leadership in place to take the firm into the next 30 years and beyond.
In the early days of our careers, the country was still in the throes of the post-World War II suburban sprawl. Even though we all knew this type of development was ultimately unsustainable, this was what most municipalities and developers pursued, and many of our clients were no exception. However, a movement to change the suburban sprawl paradigm and return to the historic model of community design was taking shape, led by architect and urban planner Andrés Duany and known as New Urbanism.
Andrés and his firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ), are probably best know for designing Seaside, Fl., the first authentic new town to be built in the United States in over 50 years. DPZ championed the design of sustainable, environmentally-responsive, pedestrian-oriented communities that feature mixed-use development and compact urban growth. The firm’s designs honored how towns had grown organically for centuries, blending commerce, residential and lively public spaces into a cohesive community. DPZ clarified and named what we had been exploring when we created our interdisciplinary firm, and connected the dots into a holistic, integrated way of thinking and placemaking.
Because our firm’s architects, planners and landscape architects work collaboratively, we have been able to build on the concepts of New Urbanism to address the entirety of a community and each component’s relationship to the others. As we look to the future, we see an ongoing need and desire for communities to retrofit outdated suburbs to improve connectivity and offer civic amenities like parks, amphitheaters and trail systems.
In communities such as Woodstock, Decatur, Duluth, Lawrenceville, Alpharetta, Chamblee and others, we’ve designed walkable, destination retail districts featuring music venues, breweries, restaurants with outdoor seating, retail and entertainment. We’ve increased density, but balanced that with a number of environmental measures such as sophisticated stormwater management systems, green buffer zones, permeable hardscapes and xeriscaping. We’ve also designed new neighborhoods, second-home communities and resorts including Glenwood Park, Las Catalinas and Big Canoe.
In many ways, the Atlanta region serves as a microcosm of the nation. Our area has traditionally been an early adopter, and because our growth has been fast-paced for decades, it’s relatively easy to identify and track development trends. In recent years, traffic and density have been the driving forces behind community design, and this will only intensify in the years to come. Engaging, inviting spaces require density, and with density comes traffic. We must create communities where people can easily utilize trail systems, bicycle lanes, pedestrian-safe streets and mass transit. E-bikes, ride-shares and even autonomous cars must be accommodated and encouraged.
The concept of placemaking – or place awareness – has always been ingrained in our firm’s architecture projects. Of course buildings must function well, but they must also visually connect to their surroundings and reflect the community’s “soul” or “vibe”. As Atlanta and its neighboring municipalities continue to densify and push towards true urbanization, the success of mixed use projects will not only depend on the proper mix of housing, office and retail, but also on the authenticity of the collective whole. We achieve this authenticity not only by designing contextural new buildings, but also by renovating and repurposing core buildings where they exist. In this way, we creatively combine designs inspired by regional or neighborhood influences with artful doses of contemporary design elements.
In addition to traffic, density and authenticity, every community must address home affordability. It’s no secret that apartment rental rates are rising, as are single-family home prices. As we seek solutions to creating more housing choices in walkable communities, house-scale buildings with multiple units (like duplexes or fourplexes) offer innovative solutions.
Opticos Design Founder Daniel Parolek coined the term “Missing Middle” to define these smaller, multi-unit buildings and bungalow courts. They bridge the economic gap between single-family homes and mid- to high-rise apartment or condominium buildings, and ideally are located within walking distance of public transportation and local retail. Popular decades ago, these homes meet differing generational and income needs and offer residents the opportunity to live in a walkable neighborhood without the cost and maintenance requirements of a detached single-family home. Missing middle homes should be a key component of new community development.
It’s ironic that as we look to the future, we are also looking to the past to draw on time-tested building, landscape and community design concepts. As we move away from car-centric, sprawling suburbs, we are moving back towards high-density, walkable, mixed-use communities. We are leaving shopping malls and big box stores and flocking to smaller, experiential marketplaces and pop-up retail. While single family homes remain popular, so are multi-family apartments and condos, cluster homes and missing middle housing options. Green spaces are once again where we come together for relaxation, recreation and enjoyment. TSW has enjoyed 30 rewarding years of designing places and spaces and we are excited about the decades to come.
Note to Readers: Founded in Atlanta in 1990, TSW is a full-service planning, architecture and landscape architecture firm, under the direction of Bill Tunnell, architect and planner, Jerry Spangler, architect, and Tom Walsh, landscape architect.