Shop Shape

Some say the retail street is down for the count—five landscape architecture firms say not so fast.

By Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect, PLLC; Mantle Landscape Architecture; MNLA; RDG Planning and Design; and SWA Houston

Retail is the heart of American life. Dating back to the earliest U.S. towns and cities, commercial storefronts have been more than a place to purchase goods. At their best, they have been a central hub for exchanging news, a way to make a living for recent immigrants and women, and a source of new ideas and tastes. At their worst, commercial streets have been separate spheres with hard boundaries. In many neighborhoods, as new waves of residents have arrived, commercial streets have created and sustained communities.

Before the pandemic, there were many worrying reports of street retail’s demise, a consequence of the dominance of the digital economy. Many retail companies were shifting from emphasizing products to selling experiences, but that evolution vaporized overnight in March 2020. Today, the retail street is struggling. Online commerce has accelerated under the pandemic, and many small businesses have not survived the year without a steady flow of customers. Recent economic research forecasts up to 10,000 stores could close in 2021, and though it also predicts 4,000 openings, most of those will be concentrated in discount (think dollar-store chains) and grocery. In addition, surveys suggest that many who migrated to online-only shopping during the pandemic aren’t rushing back to in-store shopping after it ends. Sociable, vibrant street life will need an injection of energy and vision to meet the next moment.

At the end of 2020, we asked five landscape architecture firms to reimagine, in the biggest way, the next world for retail. We asked each firm to choose a street they knew well and to quickly sketch out a few ideas of what that retail street might become and write a short statement. No constraints were placed except that the street should appeal to the same constituency that it currently serves—no displacement, and no big-box retail. The results, on the pages that follow, chart a way forward.

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Mount Eden Avenue, New York

Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect, PLLC
Sama Azadi; Suzanne Greene, ASLA; Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA
Andrea Baker Consulting/En2action: Andrea Baker, Pooja Rajani

The Bronx’s Mount Eden is a bustling, densely urban community of Anglo-Caribbean, Latinx, and Muslim West African immigrants, generations-settled Blacks, and Puerto Rican families. Ninety-nine percent of its residents rent apartments in multifamily buildings; their neighborhood equity is strongly sociocultural.

Mount Eden Avenue is a prime example of a secondary commercial corridor tenanted by local, primarily independent shop owners who depend highly on foot traffic for survival. Mount Eden’s incline also highlights an aspect of retail that is not always obvious: The steeper the street incline, the narrower the store frontage.

New York City has issued guidelines for outdoor dining structures, but none for retail. If the virus-defined streetscape is here to stay, how can local, small-brand provisioners such as pharmacies, dry cleaners, and shoe-repair shops also market their businesses in challenging public rights-of-way?

We think lightweight, self-leveling, single-axis retail trailers might creatively bring pop-up flexibility to local shopping. The trailer typology rethinks the food truck that originated in these communities; with extendable decks and bleachers fore and aft, they could engagingly offer amenities that are crucial for streetscape activation. Most important, the typology is easily adapted, styled, and claimed.

Nos quedamos: We stayed.

Images courtesy Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect, PLLC.


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Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, California

Mantle Landscape Architecture
Hannah Chako, Lu Dai, Sarita Govani, Katie Laurin, Sean Henderson, and Ramsey Silberberg, ASLA

Telegraph Swapscape re-envisions the future retail street transformed into a heterogeneous organism thriving on the multiplicity found in urban life. It is a place that embraces socioeconomic diversity and ecological principles—rejecting society’s “throwaway” culture. Here a more complex web of commerce is envisioned, where “buying” isn’t the sole mechanism for the exchange of goods needed by everyone for sustenance.

The proposition takes inspiration from retail’s etymological root retailler, a French word meaning to cut off, shred, scrap. Building off the collage-like character of the eclectic businesses on Telegraph Avenue today, the plan proposes transforming the street into an urban “Exchange Park,” expanding infrastructure to support different modes of consumption. A place where you can still shop for new, but also barter, swap, fix, donate, upcycle, share, or borrow. People replace vehicles as the primary activators of this community-focused street. Opportunity Kiosks activate the interior with direct-to-consumer businesses, repair co-ops, and barter booths. The linear architectural facades are reformed to create a serrated frame that shapes outdoor rooms for various activities.

Telegraph Swapscape examines how our public spaces are structured to enable our “pay-to-play” consumer landscape and replaces it with a commerce of reciprocity, broadening equity and access, and acknowledging that our world’s resources are limited.

Images courtesy Mantle Landscape Architecture.


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Dallas Street, Houston

SWA Houston
Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA; Natalia Beard

The future of street retail in downtown Houston is particularly complicated owing to the extensive tunnel network siphoning off workers to subterranean eateries and shops. As dying malls are transformed into warehouses for robotic delivery services, the disposable-fashion conscious will need new places to hang out. If the right experience were offered, the urban bored might look up from their Instagram feeds to participate in the urban fashion spectacle.

The CURA(QR)-TORIUM is a three-dimensional window into a uniquely curated shop that occupies our downtown sidewalks as window displays ripped from a favorite store. Etsy shopkeepers who don’t have a shop to keep will display their wares in highly curated ways. Traditional retailers will entice online shoppers by showing actual products rather than pixelated web images. These striking displays are constantly changing as competition for the most exciting curatorium breaks out between retailers. Downtown streets become experience dispensaries where “curiosities” can be scanned and delivered.

A downtown spectacle is created with a Derek Zoolander-inspired “walk-off.” Participants step up to the kiosk and create outlandishly curated outfits that are displayed on enormous digital mirrors as each contestant tries to outdo the next, strutting their digitally fashioned fashion. Flashbulbs pop, the crowd approves, experiences are had.

Images courtesy SWA Houston.


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Ingersoll Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa

RDG Planning & Design
Doug Adamson, ASLA; Nate Byro, ASLA; Charlie Cowell; Sara Davids Poetting, ASLA; Dani Hodgson, Associate ASLA; Colt McDermott, ASLA; Bruce Niedermyer, ASLA; Kene Okigbo, ASLA; Ryan Peterson; Cary Thomsen, ASLA; Andrea Ytzen

striding forward with no fallacy of precedent

no conformation to a deity of design whose only
contribution is the subtle subterfuge that you are
comfortable in your complacent “complete” streets


your streets who bring with them the silent suggestion
that complete is enough

your streets whose borrowed land is still
only exclusively welcoming

your streets who find more worth in
four wheels than two heels


we are re-creating reconstruction, but through
a lens that is neither reticent nor beyond reproach

creating place which would leave Maslow enamored, as he saw his hierarchy made manifest in the equilibrium of formed nurture and found nature


a place equitably welcoming of young souls and weathered soles

a place not seen as a pass-through, but a path to

a place so full of all we need that it kneads us—elevating environment and inhabitant alike


creating place within space and seeing to it that this place fulfills us as it is filled by us

Images courtesy RDG Planning & Design.

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Church and Cortlandt Streets, New York

Molly Bourne, ASLA; Daniel Yannaccone, ASLA; William Hart, ASLA; Noriko Maeda, ASLA; Sonya Gimon; Emily Gordon

The BIG BOX to BIG PUBLIC concept envisions the future of the Century 21 site, a local department store that filed for bankruptcy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The store had expanded over the years, fueled by transportation improvements and the post-9/11 renaissance in Lower Manhattan. Today it has frontages on all sides of the city block at Church and Cortlandt Streets. Its closure will leave a large void in both the retail and streetscape environments of Manhattan’s Financial District. Additionally, its departure comes at a time when large flagship stores are closing across the city and demand for office space is down. A repurposing of such a major store may take many years. BIG BOX to BIG PUBLIC proposes a retail experience that blurs the boundaries of inside and outside. The enormous facades are modified to pull natural elements inside while simultaneously drawing retail elements out onto Cortlandt and Dey Streets, which would close to traffic. From this singular big box, a retail atmosphere akin to an open-air flea market or bazaar is created. The BIG PUBLIC becomes a sensory magnet with tactile, olfactory, visual, and auditory cues engaging the public and enlivening the urban environment. Through its design and relationship to street life, this retail environment defies trends toward online shopping and provides a place for the community to converse, gather, and explore the unique wares created by New York’s retailers.

Images courtesy MNLA.

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