Cities have always been centers of socialization, though online communications have replaced much traditional person-to-person communication. Vibrancy, dynamism, and multilayered opportunities for socializing are keys to maintaining the role of cities as powerful engines of the global economy.

A 2019 ULI Fall Meeting session explored new ways of activating social nodes in urban spaces, using experiential design to allow cities’ social infrastructure to evolve. These new “nodes” include ever-evolving urban markets, multifunctional libraries, and even bank cafés.

LandDesign partner Gabriela Cañamar Clark, session moderator, began by pointing out that 55 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2018, a figure expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. Over 82 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, according to management consultants McKinsey & Company, up from 64 percent in 1950. In 2007, the world’s top 600 cities generated more than half of global GDP—about $30 trillion.

The economic power of cities is dependent on social vitality, noted Clark. Larger cities attract the most talent and the most investment, in turn stimulating economic growth. “How can we bring this vitality to places like parking lots that can feel unsafe?” she asked.

Traditional cities have many places that serve residents’ social needs, said Irena Savakova, global design principal at Leo A. Daly and director of design for the firm’s Washington, D.C., studio. An example is a small covered outdoor market in Europe that has been in use since the 11th century. This market has a daily cycle of intergenerational activity: early morning produce sales, midday gatherings of elderly residents, children’s play in the afternoon, and outdoor dining in the evening.

Encouraging such multilayered activation is a goal of the redesign of Eastern Market Metro Plaza in Washington, D.C. Part of Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 master plan and the city’s original infrastructure, this outdoor space has evolved with changes in transportation and use of the surrounding land. With the redesign, planners hope to bring the community together through the inclusion of multigenerational social activities while improving multimodal transit access and allowing flexible use of the space.

One often-overlooked opportunity for creating urban social nodes is the local public library. Surprisingly, millennials are just ahead of baby boomers as the largest users of public libraries, and only 8 percent of library users prefer using a mobile app to visiting in person.

Libraries are reinventing themselves, according to Leo A. Daly vice president Cindy McCleary. Many of today’s libraries integrate coworking and maker spaces, hold outdoor events, and host a wide range of spaces that serve social connectivity and social equity. The Pew Research Center has found that every dollar of public investment in a library returns over $4 to $7, depending on location.

Social nodes can even be established in banks, as Capital One has done with its bank cafés in multiple locations. The most successful Capital One Café is in Washington’s Chinatown, across from the busy Gallery Place Metro station. This hybrid retail concept combines convenient banking with coffee and snacks, and even offers free meeting space to community organizations. The casual environment makes banking less intimidating, panelists agreed, especially for new entrepreneurs.

Since the time of the Greek agora and even earlier, the public market has been a focal point for socialization. Joan Floura of Floura Teeter Landscape Architects described her work in planning a renewal of Baltimore’s storied Lexington Market. “Now more than ever, Baltimore needs a place that unites us racially, socially, economically, intergenerationally, and geographically,” she said. “Lexington Market can be that place, creating a living example of a diverse, inclusive, and equitable Baltimore.”

But the city faces numerous obstacles on the path to achieving that goal: safety, crime, drug use, vendor selections, gentrification, and even trash removal. Solutions could include taking drug users directly to rehab facilities rather than to jail and helping them find local jobs. Planners hope to diversify the offerings of the indoor market stalls, providing healthier options and reducing repetition. The planning effort’s robust community engagement process includes an advisory board, working groups, community listening tours, town hall meetings, surveys, focus groups, and more.

A relatively new mechanism for urban neighborhood transformation is available through Opportunity Zones, said Kristina Crawley, commercial market sector leader at Leo A Daly. Research shows, however, that the tax shelter effect of this mechanism “doesn’t make bad real estate good, but rather it makes good real estate better.” In many cases, she said, Opportunity Zone development has accelerated population displacement and has had no positive impact on job creation, poverty reduction, health and wellness, or educational outcomes.

Opportunity Zone development, in tandem with financial investment, could do much more, Crawley said. “Reframing community investment, or Opportunity Zones, to provide inclusive programming for social placemaking can occur through design, policy, and social citizenship,” she said. “It’s about respecting communities by giving them a voice. Our focus is on creating sustainable social spaces that do not displace but are inclusive. By focusing programming of social spaces to include the economic, cultural, and service needs of a community, you have a chance to elevate and restitch the social fabric, and ultimately create an authentic place.”