Anchors in Urban Environments
June 13, 2013

In my opinion, pedestrian-centric environments are some of the most enjoyable environments to be in. I often use Rundle Mall in my hometown of Adelaide as an example of a enjoyable pedestrian environment, because I grew up there;

I often wonder, though, how can one recreate a place like that? What makes it thrive? If it is simply an issue of 'build it and they will come' - why are there so there so many boring, dead streets out there?

They built it, but nobody came.

Street life does not appear just because you have created a place for them to occupy;

Street life appears when there is a reason for people to go out of their way to be there;

So, the problem is, while it is easy to physically build a place like this;

How do we get people to go there (and tolerate the traffic and the parking) and maintain the constant pedestrian presence required there to make it viable, when they could just as easily drive here instead;

I am working on an ongoing theory about 'anchors' in urban environments. This theory can apply to any sort of urban environment (whether it is a pedestrian mall, an American downtown, or a European village, etc.) to help it fight against conveniences of suburbia.

The Problem

To make a pedestrian environment viable, we need pedestrians. However, not many people will go out of their way to tolerate traffic, pay for parking, or park 5 blocks away and walk through your pedestrian environment if they have a suburban alternative with parking right in front;

Especially in the United States, where suburbia is the norm, it is crucial that we do our best to draw people into our wonderful urban environment. As a result, we need 'anchors' to generate this foot traffic.

What is an anchor?

An anchor is a destination that people want to purposely visit and will go out of their way to get there - and that means they are willing to tolerate the inconveniences of parking/traffic/walking that suburbanites tend to negatively associate with urban environments. The anchor then generates foot traffic which other destinations within proximity can benefit from.

I have identified three categories of pedestrian anchors;

  1. Unique anchors - One type of anchor is a retail or entertainment amenity that cannot be easily found elsewhere. For example, if you had the city's only movie cinema, expo hall, bowling alley, or sports stadium - people would be willing to go out of their way on special occasions to get there. If a store like Macy's opened in your town, and it was your town's only high-end department store, people would also go out of their way on a shopping trip to get there.
  2. Mandatory anchors - Another type of anchor are places you have to visit. A university is an example. There is no alternative to going to class, so people are willing to park on the other side of the campus and walk. An office building is another example - employees have to show up to work, so naturally there's going to be foot traffic as they come and go, and around lunch time too.
  3. Residential anchors - The final type are residential anchors. Detached houses, townhouses, apartments, hotels, etc. They contain people that already live within walking distance.

I am all for mixed-use development, and in an ideal world, housing would be integrated into every part of the urban environment;

This is how humans typically lived for most of history;

But, it will be hard to get the residential density to support retail in a culture where people value having their own de-attached houses with large yards;

Having retail will make the residential housing in the area attractive, but in order to make the retail viable, at least initially, we will need to focus on the other kinds of anchors.

Case Study: Rundle Mall, Adelaide

I was thinking about the anchors for Rundle Mall in my hometown of Adelaide, and the major ones I have identified are:

  1. There is a university a block away. – Guaranteed students every weekday.
  2. It is surrounded by lots of offices/city workers. – Guaranteed workers every weekday.
  3. There are a dozen department stores within one area. (Not unique individually, but combined together offers a greater variety than any suburban mall.) – Genuine shoppers may only come here a handful of times per year, but it is in a metropolitan area of over a million people to distribute it out to make a significant number.

When you combine all of these anchors together;

You create a lively, vibrant, year-round, commercially flourishing place;

Case Study: Branson Landing, Branson, Missouri

Even small towns with a population of only 10,000 can support a strong pedestrian environment. For example, the famous Branson Landing in Branson, Missouri;

Small cities like Branson, MO lack the diverse anchors of a large city like Adelaide, but can accommodate retail in the Branson Landing because it is already a tourist destination. The hotels are the anchors - because tourists can step out of their hotel lobby into the pedestrian mall.

Without the tourists the mall would die.


Once you have plenty of anchors that provide a constant flow of pedestrians then supporting amenities like convenience stores, newsstands, restaurants, cafes, food courts, street performers - that make the place more pleasant, convenient, and 'livable' will naturally emerge;

But they are not anchors by themselves, and do not attract the traffic that is required to create strong urban environments.

I think that is one reason why downtown Conway struggles and there are a lot of vacant buildings;

There are simply no anchors. There are some restaurants, clothes stores, antique shops, and a bail bondsman - but apart from some offices there really are not any anchors to draw in the pedestrians. Without pedestrian traffic, the non-anchors that make urban living so great, like convenience stores and food stalls, will simply struggle to survive.

Saving Conway, Arkansas

What would I do to save Conway, AR?

Build lots of offices.

Preferably mixed-use:

With plenty of residential units and town homes mixed in. But the offices need to outnumber the retail.

Unless we are able to able to get a unique retail/entertainment destination downtown (like persuade the city's only movie cinema to relocate there, an Apple Store, or a high-end department store chain to open up) the only way we are going to get a guaranteed heavy pedestrian presence is by having lots of offices. The offices will support the retail amenities (hungry workers will create demand for restaurants and cafes, and for newsstands and convenience stores for their commutes home), and these retail amenities will make it a desirable location to live.

"But what about parking?"

I would not consider this an issue. If it really takes off and we are too anchor-dense that we can no longer accommodate for traffic or parking yet people still want/have to be there, I see two final outcomes;

  1. Anchor density will eventually become dependent on parking.
  2. There will be demand to walk/cycle/implement transit.
Public Services

Public services, such as courthouses, police stations, and post offices often have a monopoly on the services they offer, so they are guaranteed to attract traffic. This makes them great anchors;

Placing your city's essential services strategically to anchor a strong urban location is one of the best things a city can do;

Anchor Stability

The fragility of an environment is based on the combined stability of every anchor in it. For example, let's say you have a movie cinema;

Let's say it is the best (or only) movie cinema in the city, so much so that the cinema is an anchor. It attracts people all day and every day to the area, and because of the foot traffic generated by the movie cinema, an entertainment district pops up;

Restaurants for people on movie-dinner dates, convenience stores for those that want to sneak in snacks, fast food outlets for those that want to rush in a quick meal, and it all comes together to make a very pleasent lively place;

However, it is a very fragile environment, because it is dependent on a single anchor. If that movie cinema only played on weekends, the area would feel abandoned during weekdays. Were that anchor to disappear (it relocates, a more convenient competing movie cinema opens up, or it simply goes bankrupt for some other reason), our thriving entertainment district will loose the only thing that was attracting people to the area, and will die;

Therefore, it is in any city's best interest to diversify their anchors. An environment that is dependent on one anchor is extremely fragile. That is why Rundle Mall is so resilient - there are so many anchors. If one of the hundreds of surrounding offices that draw in the daytime population relocates out, the effect on the pedestrian mall will be minimal. If one of the major department stores moves out;

The mall may suffer some hit, but there will still be plenty of remaining anchors to continue making it an attractive place that will survive.


If we want to make successful urban environments that can compete against the suburbs, we need anchors. Especially when we're surrounded by automobile-oriented suburbia, we need to give people a reason to tolerate the traffic, tolerate the parking, and tolerate the walking;

Otherwise, these suburbanites may just hide out at their the local strip mall instead;

By understanding the basics about creating strong, resilient, and anchored environments we can better build effective, walkable, human-scale cities;

That can effectively fight against the ugly, expensive, automobile dependent, suburban sprawl;