The evolution of mixed-use developments in thriving cities

Cities are organisms; by the binary concept of a city being ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ based on the presence and absence of people.

Cities and their inhabitants form a symbiotic relationship whereby both organisms benefit from each other. Mixed-Use developments in cities provide for their people, and in turn, the people bring ‘life’ to a city.

Cities come to life when their inhabitants engage with such developments, commute to and from work, attend places of education, dine out with friends, go shopping, and visit tourist attractions. Consequently, a city is considered ‘dead’ when there are no people gathering in public spaces – particularly outside business hours, when workplaces, cultural and entertainment precincts, and shopping centres are closed.

By thinking of a city as a living organism, as something that grows, consumes, produces, and nourishes, we can study and learn from its ‘heart and soul’, behavioural patterns, and complex functions for opportunities that will best support the city’s communities. This could involve reinvigorating dead city zones, creating inviting spaces, focusing on sustainable solutions, and providing facilities and amenities that benefit the needs of the public.

The city as an organic structure shares key characteristics with human systems:

  1. They comprise complex interactions between systems, and individual components are connected to one another through various processes; developing and organic behaviour signatures: the behavioural patterns of individual components in cities cannot be simply explained as a product of its various factors, as its system characteristics manifest from the function of its individual components;
  2. Cities adapt to stimuli: internal (i.e., policy, laws), and external (their connected internal components of nodes, services, new developments) evoke a specific functional reaction;
  3. There are set ratios/ proportions in a human body: equally in cities and their proportionate scales (from a broad city-scale to the laneway) all have functions;
  4. At its worst, cities can become autophagic: where elements or components must be re-purposed or re-generated to support important new functions.

By understanding the intricate characteristics of cities, designers are well-placed to respond accordingly in anticipation of a city’s needs. These characteristics can be applied on a scalable level to cities across the world. To highlight, this paper discussed antithetical evolutionary opposites through the development modalities of Birmingham, England, Christchurch, New Zealand, to the favelas that surround and are a part of the populous cities of Brazil and other South American countries.

Cities as organisms with ‘heart and soul’

Like most living organisms, a city will have its own ‘heart and soul’, born from the uniqueness of its people and culture, the heritage and history woven through time, and its values and visions for the future. For designers, identifying the unique characteristics of ‘place’ in and around a site in order to enhance and respond to these elements is critical in context integration. Beyond mere appearance, this response considers aspects of the heart and soul of a city to facilitate a connection between people and place. When people feel connected to a site, they will develop a ‘sense of place’ and a desire to live and work within it, ready to defend its integrity, resulting in a collective ‘passive’ safety.

In Digbeth, Birmingham, the sense of place is intrinsically tied to the community, which is proud of its long industrial history that saw major expansion and growth during the Industrial Revolution and after bombing during WWII. More recently, the city’s regeneration has seen major infrastructure changes and adaptive reuse of existing buildings to create a pedestrian-friendly and modern city, that maintains the existing culture. Through the sensitive and respectful redevelopment of old industrial areas, Digbeth’s character has transformed in support of new creative industries that contribute to the desirability of the city to live, play, and work.

Image of Birmingham River in Digbeth.
Digbeth, Birmingham

Christchurch, New Zealand, sees a city successfully rebuilding itself as a modern, multicultural city after the damaging 2011 earthquakes destroyed many of its colonial buildings. The ‘post-earthquake’ city is based on town planners’ modern aspirations. Although remnants of its past will endure through the architecture that remains, the new Christchurch is based on public wellbeing and social activation. Christchurch’s multi-culturalism and its traditional owners are shaping how the city develops. Although Christchurch has always been a centre for ‘alternative thinking’, the rebuild has resurfaced this sentiment. Building spaces associated with public wellbeing have been prioritised over other ‘anchor projects’ – such as the Cardboard Cathedral, Tūranga Library, and the Christchurch Bus Interchange – which launched rebuilding efforts in key precincts.

In the favelas of Brazilian cities, a lack of sufficient government support to improve the favelas’ infrastructure has resulted in residents that are self-sufficient, inventive, and adaptable. The mix of different backgrounds and skill sets is reflected in the frugal yet eclectic infrastructure of the favelas, which focuses on creative solutions using the limited resources and spaces on hand to come up with built environment interventions that respond to immediate environmental challenges. Pacification is a driving trend of development in favelas, as communities look to dispel the stigma of crime, drug use, and poverty associated with favelas through positive social change projects such as systems-based developments inclusive of crèches, new houses, and pathways. The participation of the favela residents in creating a liveable neighbourhood speaks to a sense of place, pride, and loyalty to the neighbourhood.

By considering people and place (the composition of a city’s heart and soul) at every stage of the design journey, built environment designers can ensure new and adaptive developments positively contribute to what is special and successful about a place.

Image of Morro da Providencia favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Morro da Providencia favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Thriving cities

What makes a city thrive? What design methods and processes can designers implement to create a built environment that best provide for a city with evolving needs and stressors? Design methods emerge and evolve out of practice-based research, contemporary design trends, and consideration of community concerns. Over recent years, three key mechanisms have become prominent in addressing the contemporary and changing needs of a city: retention and adaptive reuse; mixed-use; and adaptability. By meeting the current and anticipating the future needs of a city (and its communities and environment) through the built environment, designers encourage cities to thrive and flourish.

Retention and Adaptive Reuse

There is a shift towards retention and adaptive reuse over demolition. By working with the built fabric, rather than demolishing it, the fine-grain cultural tapestry and ‘memory’ of buildings can be retained. Moreover, this strategy also contributes to adapting net zero carbon construction. In Digbeth, some areas have become desirable places to work and live and tourist destinations through the regeneration of old industrial areas. Buildings like the Custard Factory have been adapted to support the city’s creative industries while still retaining Digbeth’s sense of character. By identifying what is special and unique about Digbeth and surrounds, and then enhancing and responding to these elements new developments were able to sensitively integrating into the context, maintaining the community, social, and cultural history. Often, adaptive reuse and retention occur gradually and organically as older buildings are replaced with new developments and heritage buildings are re-visioned toward an adaptive fit-for-purpose contemporary function, but in some cases, like Christchurch, natural disasters like earthquakes necessitate an immediate, large-scale rebuilding strategy.


Bringing a variety of diverse uses together at varying scales can help bring liveliness and activity to a city. In most active neighbourhoods around the world, including Digbeth, there is a broad range of uses operating side-by-side: dining and entertainment venues alongside small and larger, more established businesses alongside residential zones, open public spaces, and higher education facilities. These elements all co-existing in one neighbourhood allows for the mingling of different communities and creates active spaces throughout the city, at all times of the day. ‘Creative vitality’ can help entice people to live, work and play in cities of regeneration, like Birmingham. As redevelopment occurred in Digbeth, and affordability decreased, a variety of scales, flexible and adaptable spaces enabled the retention of experimental and ‘trendy’ businesses, which initially contributed to the area’s popularity. This includes measures to facilitate adaptable spaces and improve affordability such as flexible short-format leases, pop-up food, co-work and incubator spaces, and the opportunity for new businesses to grow in converted warehouses or ‘plug in’ office spaces.

Flexibility and Adaption

Mixed-Use design needs to consider the flexibility, adaptability, and optimisation of spaces between buildings and their utilisation. Cities face many challenges from shifts in population, economic booms and busts, social ills, effects of climate change, and the impacts of natural disasters. Successful cities are those that can incorporate new trends and actively respond to evolving needs and environmental, economic, and social challenges. The Brazilian favelas embodies this wholeheartedly, being an organism born from a melting-pot of limited resources, poor socioeconomic living conditions, narrow spaces, and the coexistence of multiple cultures and religions. Residents are inventive and flexible due to limited economic resources and a lack of government intervention. There is less of a focus on creating space to expand development, but more on how space can be created to accommodate current environmental challenges. For example, despite lacking quality waste management and sanitary infrastructure, the residents of a favela community in Vale Encantado, created a sewage treatment biosystem and solar panel energy system to allow their community to be economically and environmentally self-sufficient.

In response to the devastating earthquakes and the massive scale of the rebuilding process, Christchurch had to rapidly create ‘temporary’ projects to support city residents. Some projects, like Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral and the Re:START shipping container shopping precinct, were brought to life with an expediency in ratio to that of the earthquake’s destruction rapidly to bring life back to the city. These two projects, amongst others, garnered international acclaim and helped create the perception that Christchurch was ‘back’ and showcased how Christchurch’s urban environment and its designers adapted to the challenges of rebuilding to meet the needs of a modern city off the foundations of a former city in the face of natural disaster.

Christchurch, New Zealand
Image of a damaged cathedral after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.
After the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand
Image of the Cardboard Cathedral by Shigeru Ban created after the 2022 earthquake.
Cardboard Cathedral by Shigeru Ban

Cities and their Communities

Cities and their inhabitants have a reciprocal symbiotic relationship. The best way to ensure a city’s continual survival is to ensure the provisions of its people, both current and future, are always met. Doing so allows a city to maintain its ‘heart and soul’ whilst still being contemporary and upwardly mobile.

However, one concern is that as development sprawls outwards from the inner city to less developed areas, gentrification will occur and existing occupants generally on the lower socioeconomic spectrum, and their needs, will be ignored. Typically, such circumstances are met with an outward push for new luxury housing and high-end commercial and retail spaces. Accordingly, meaningful consultation with affected communities is critical throughout the design process. Best urban outcomes stem from design that engages in the deliberations and understanding of its local community. Ultimately, the design of the built environment is an exercise in facilitating people. If we want people to be able to make spaces and cities their own, we need to build in adaptability, flexibility and a variety of scales and opportunities. The most creative and exciting ways people occupy spaces could often never have been predicted, but through its affordance. It is the designer’s responsibility to advocate for the end user; designing with human scale and experience should be constantly at the forefront of decision-making.

Community involvement comes in many forms. In Christchurch, the needs of the current multicultural population and the needs and recognition of the traditional landowners are informing the master planning of the city’s rebuilding. In favela communities, pride in creating liveable neighbourhoods from residents, and local authority contributions to ongoing maintenance and preservation of interventions, have led to sustainable built interventions to respond to community needs. And in Digbeth, the historic sense of place is retained in the retention of industrial buildings to speak to the industrial past and future creative endeavours. The uniqueness of place, and re-developments, therefore, should always be based on thorough evidence-based research on the requirements and aspirations of their target users.

We are proud at Hames Sharley of considering ‘place’ first and looking beyond the site boundary. This is born out of our 40+ year history of urban design integrated with architecture. Communities appreciate being heard, and support from authorities and governments can help cement the sense of pride a community has in its locale. Support makes things happen and amplifies the voice of the community. At Hames Sharley, we prioritise people and carefully consider community needs when producing urban and built design outcomes. Ultimately, as we at Hames Sharley help to improve our cities through our urban design and built-form expertise, we in turn aim to improve the lives of people and enable our communities to flourish.

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