Published January 22, 2016
With 35 years of experience in urban planning and development, School of Architecture and Planning adjunct professor David Stebbins has learned a few things about how to create a vibrant urban center.
His recent co-authored article, entitled “Making Downtowns What They Used to Be,” was featured in Urban Land Magazine, the magazine of the nationally recognized Urban Land Institute. The article went on to be one of the publication’s Top 5 articles of 2015.
Written jointly with Emil Malizia, professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the article compiles research and practical insights from a wide variety of sources and studies. Simply put, “vibrant centers” are walkable live/work/play environments. Elements such as parks and waterfronts, in addition to venues for sports, entertainment and the arts, greatly contribute to the vibrancy of an area.
In contrast, Stebbins and Malizia argue that the “onslaught of highway-oriented suburban development over the past 60 years” has had the opposite effect on vibrancy, and outline the fundamental differences in development and space distribution (see table).
|Vibrant Centers||Suburban Commercial Development|
|Compact - Floor/area ratios over 1.0||Spread out - Floor/area ratios under 0.3|
|Mixed-use buildings||Single-use buildings|
|Multiple land uses near each other||One land use per acre|
|Grid-type street pattern||Curvilinear streets, dead ends and service roads|
|Smaller block size with multiple connections||Superblocks and landscape buffers|
|Connections to internal and external destinations||Separation from destinations|
|Parking maximums and structured parking||Parking miniumums and expansive parking lots|
|Relatively high density||Relatively low density|
|Public places and outdoor open spaces||Private, enclosed interior spaces|
|Transit-accessible destinations with defined public realm||Highway-oriented development with signage|
|Discrete boundaries and edges||Continuous development pattern consuming greenfield sites|
|Critical mass: additional development increases vibrancy||Lack of critical mass: additional development increases traffic congestion|
Stebbins and Malizia invite urban planners and developers to promote vibrancy in their unique locales, and offer eight rules to provide guidance. They emphasize increasing walkability and density, providing housing for downtown workers, and a focus on mixed-use and public spaces.
“Downtowns are truly special places because they have so much development in such a small area. Keep it tight,” they advise.
As Stebbins’s expertise is recognized at a national level, students in the School of Architecture and Planning are also reaping the benefits. Stebbins is one of more than a dozen real estate professionals who have been recruited as adjunct faculty and advisors for the school’s new three-semester real estate development specialization within the Master of Science in Architecture program. Stebbins is excited about the opportunity to teach and work with up-and-coming architects and planners.
“I have long believed that architecture and planning students should learn more about the real estate development process,” says Stebbins. “That is the greater field in which they will practice. We also need to train real estate professionals with a better understanding of the public interest and how they can contribute to a more sustainable built environment, and still make a profit.”
Stebbins received his B.A. in Environmental Design from UB in 1978, in addition to an M.A. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently vice president of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, a local non-profit development entity which specializes in urban development, and is currently in the process of redeveloping a complex of vacant industrial buildings on Northland Avenue in the City of Buffalo, as well as leading BUDC’s downtown revitalization program through the Buffalo Building Reuse Project.
Stebbins also serves on the Urban Revitalization Council of the Urban Land Institute, a multidisciplinary real estate forum that facilitates an open exchange of ideas, information and experience among industry leaders and policy makers dedicated to creating better places.