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Thought Leadership Views From Peachtree

Want More Street-Level Vibrancy? Make More Invitations for People.

By Anna Muessig, Director at Gehl

For the past decade, I’ve worked closely with over a dozen cities to support thriving public life and quality public space as a driver of community transformation. Midtown Atlanta has what many other districts work decades to achieve: A tree-lined, walkable street grid with a growing, mixed community of residents, visitors, and office workers, a historic Olmsted-designed park just beyond, and dozens of anchor institutions, flagship businesses, and government institutions to bolster a robust economic outlook.

During the pandemic, Midtown indeed weathered the storm. Over seven thousand workers will be showing up to new jobs based in Midtown in the near future. Over six thousand new residents will be calling Midtown home. That’s a tremendous accomplishment in a time when many business districts have emptied out, and are making hard choices and big pivots. 

But, beneath these banner numbers, what does Midtown feel like on the street? And what can the district do to solidify its strong growth trajectory into the future? 

At Gehl, we have learned over decades of analysis that public life is both a driver of belonging and value creation, and a barometer of a good city. Public life is the experience we create together in public space, when we leave our car, our office, and our home. Public life is walking your dog, walking from the train, a chat about the weather with a familiar stranger, or just people watching: being alone, together. Without it, cities feel boring, empty, even scary. A place to be avoided or rushed through. With it, cities are destinations, creators of life-long memories and traditions, and places we come back to again and again. A city with great public life is a place where you might even choose to go on vacation. 

With this in mind, Midtown Alliance asked Gehl to perform an analysis to see how a focus on public life could guide the district’s next chapter.

What we found was interesting: incredible growth in the buildings, but not much on the street. In fact, compared to other districts of its size, Midtown Atlanta was lacking in public life activity in some of its core public spaces by a factor of three. Why is that? One of the things we often look at is the relationship between how the public space experience at eye level invites or disinvites public life. Walking along stretches of Midtown the answer becomes clear: all the vibrancy that we see on paper isn’t manifesting on the street, it’s in the corporate cafeterias, lovely balconies, and upper amenity decks. Some of these buildings may be growing and bustling up above, but that vibrancy is nowhere to be found on the street. 

Brand new buildings have a shiny, even repellant, veneer on the street. And many of them are vacant! Not very friendly or inviting. Of all the building façades that we walked along in the district (and we walked every single block) only 5% of facades situated on key corridors had a high-quality rating. And 19% of all retail facades are vacant. Why? Midtown has the people, the land use, and the fundamental infrastructure. But it’s missing a strategy to invite public life at eye level. 

Why do we think this strategy might work in Midtown? Because it’s working already: when public life is invited in Midtown, people flock to it. The new dog park at 10th and Peachtree Streets is packed. When Midtown Alliance has brought programming and events to the Commercial Row Commons space and Arts District Plaza, the crowds have showed up for a good time. The same is true at North American Properties’ Colony Square. Among commercial developers, NAP has led the way, putting their resources into events and activities of all kinds on the ground floor that draw people in. But Midtown needs many more of these invitations. 

Where do we go from here? Our team has put together an action plan to make public life a driving narrative for Midtown’s next chapter. 

What does it mean to have a quality building facade that invites public life? Why does Midtown have so many vacancies, and what’s a realistic strategy for activating them? How might an artist, a resident, and a private property owner contribute to bringing these spaces to life? 

Join me on Wednesday, February 8 at the 2023 Midtown Alliance’s Annual Meeting to learn how simple strategies that can take place over the short, medium and long term can continue to propel this incredible district into an inviting, active, and prosperous future.

Anna Muessig brings expertise in creative engagement and evidence-based storytelling to influence the built environment, putting people at the center of decisions that shape public life in our cities. Her team at Gehl has worked for the past six months with Midtown Alliance and partners to develop an action plan that will create more street-level energy in the district, aligning the interests of property owners with urban design, economic development and transportation strategies. Connect with Anna here.


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1 Comment

  1. Albert February 7, 2023 11:10 am

    Midtown needs retail stores, the lack of shops makes the streets desolate. There are no true bakeries, wine shops, big box retail stores such as Zara (for example) or J Crew etc etc. Vacant retail spaces need businesses and those businesses need to have purpose to residents. Midtown Alliance should incentivize retailers to open. Right now as it stands, Midtown is “pretty” but has not much to offer when walking the streets, Midtown needs to give residents the amenities to go out and about. Other than a Publix and Whole Foods, where else can one shop in Midtown. In order to “shop” you would need to go to the mall in buckhead or to Atlantic station. Retail stores should be accessible in the vacant retail spaces within Midtown. This would be a big game changer.Report


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