Active centers – interactive edges: The rise and fall of ground floor frontages

Kickert, C.

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Kickert, C. C. (2016). Active centers–interactive edges: The rise and fall of ground floor frontages. Urban Design International, 21(1), 55-77.

Downtowns , Interactive Frontages , Public Space , Retail , Urban Morphology

The ground floors of buildings are a key element of the urban experience, yet the dynamics that shape frontages are largely unknown. This article delves into the forces and patterns behind the transforming relationship between architecture and public space in Western urban cores over the past century. After defining a methodology for structurally measuring the interactivity of ground floor frontages over time, the study focuses on two case study urban cores of Detroit, Michigan and The Hague, Netherlands. Through a combination of narra- tive historiography, detailed mapping and statistical studies a set of recommendations is generated to help urban designers and planners better understand and counter frontage decline. The two seemingly disparate cities are demonstrated to have undergone remarkably similar patterns of frontage interactivity erosion, with outcomes diverging as a result of an often reinforcing set of forces. Only upon understanding frontages as social, economic, cultural, political and technological constructs with physical, functional and connotative effects on public space will the profession be able to effectively steer the future of the architecture of public life.

Main finding
The relation between buildings and public space provides several positive effects on street life. Ground floor functions are understudied but important to the quality of public space. Frontage interactivity maps have been applied to The Hague, Netherlands and Detroit, Michigan. Both cities show a decline in average frontage interactivity, especially smaller and peripherally located businesses in downtown have vanished. The economic and planning history of the city have led to frontage deterioration, but it should be understood that a critical mass is necessary for a cluster of shops to remain viable.

Description of method used in the article
A retrospective approach investigates why and how frontages have evolved. The why question is answered with historical research. The how question is answered through structured mapping of frontage interactivity over roughly 10-25 years intervals between 1911 and 2011. The frontage interactivity maps include 14 ground floor functions categorized into

Policy implications

Organising categories