Don’t Get Mixed Up on Mixed-Use

Citizens, politicians, and planning officials have embraced the need to allow for walkable neighborhoods across North America and mixed-use is an essential component for achieving walkability. However, the term mixed-use has held different meanings in different places over the past 40 years or so.

For example, mixed-use zones have usually had to declare a primary and secondary use with both use’s development standards redundantly stacked together and the primary use, such as residential, controlling the building’s configuration, orientation and disposition — thereby marginalizing the building’s ability to effectively host other commercial or office uses. Also, a mixed-use zoning designation meant that a land owner had the right to ‘choose’ a specific use, such as either commercial or residential. While the zoning district had a mix of uses, the implementation was single-use.

Today, the most common misunderstanding I find about mixed-use is that most people think it equates, on any street or in any context, to a shopfront with housing above.

In short, mixed-use makes for three-dimensional, pedestrian-oriented places that layer compatible land uses, public amenities, and utilities together at various scales and intensities. This variety of uses allows for people to live, work, play and shop in one place, which then becomes a destination for people from other neighborhoods. As defined by The Lexicon of the New Urbanism, mixed-use is multiple functions within the same building or the same general area through superimposition or within the same area through adjacency… from which many of the benefits are… pedestrian activity and traffic capture.

While mixed-use can take on many forms, it’s typically categorized as either A) vertical mixed-use buildings; B) horizontal mixed-use blocks; or C) mixed-use walkable neighborhoods.

Vertical Mixed-Use Building: Combines different uses in the same building. Lower floors should have more public uses with more private uses on the upper floors. For example, the ground floor could have retail, second floor and up having professional offices, and uppermost floors being some form of residential, such as flats or a hotel. In more urban areas, an entire block or neighborhood may be composed of vertical mixed-use buildings.

Horizontal Mixed-Use Blocks: Combines single-use buildings on distinct parcels in a range of land uses within one block. In more urban areas, this approach avoids the financing and coding complexities of vertical layered uses while achieving the goal of placemaking that is made possible by bringing together complementary uses in one place. In less urban areas, horizontal mixed-use offers the advantage of sharing utilities and amenities while providing an easier to build and entitle mix of uses within a walkable block circumscribed by thoroughfares.

Mixed-Use Walkable Neighborhoods: With the infinite number of various possibilities, these places combine vertical and horizontal use mixing in an area ideally within a 5 to 10 minute walking distance (a Pedestrian Shed) or quarter mile radius of a neighborhood center.

Mixed-use Neighborhood (San Diego’s Uptown District: Both vertical and horizontal mixed-use throughout, located on a vibrant Main Street. Voted one of America’s 10 great neighborhoods by the American Planning Association in 2007). Click for larger view.

We all live more complex lives than simply living in one pod of development, working in another, shopping in a different one, and then driving to recreate. For example, I’m writing this from my upstairs office, around the corner from my favorite restaurant and down the street from a wonderful canyon I hike with my kids. The mixing of uses is a catalyst to building complete, compact, complex, and convivial neighborhoods — as well as competitive Town Centers — because it facilitates efficient access to where people live, work, play and shop via walking, biking, transit and/or cars. Conventional zoning, financing, and approval processes are antithetical to mixed-use and, unless your town has a strong history of it, I recommend making it possible and probable via a flexible form-based code. This place-based zoning tool allows for mixed-use Main Streets, Town Centers, neighborhood centers, and everyday neighborhoods, all by-right.

Howard Blackson

Dig deeper into mixed-use with our “New Models for Mixed Use: Infill Strategies” webinar, featuring Victor Dover. Available on-demand, just 15 bucks.

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  1. Howie, I almost always gush over everything you guys do, but this is a rare exception… while the text is great, the images aren’t as good as what you’re capable of. C’mon, you guys create really beautiful stuff in your sleep! These images, while not awful, aren’t up to PlaceMakers standards, IMO. But beyond the superficial, you’ve made some really good points here… well worth the read.

    • wow…I am astonished that someone would criticize the good work that others have done but not astonished…being in this profession.
      I look at the work and see it for the content and educational tool – I look past the images and I feel the need to “trash” peoples work. But I am glad you thought it was worth the read, so did I.

  2. I’ve also found that developers purposefully misuse mixed use to try to give their projects an urban edge over the competition-

  3. Mixed use is defined by planners as two of the following land use categories- residential, commercial and industrial. Live-work is often overused by New Urbanists as it’s not a qualifier for mixed use or even the norm. There could be an office in an apartment building not occupied by a tenant of that same building but it’s still mixed use.

  4. Why is that we need to define separate spaces at all? Why is the office/work space used in the day and residence at night? This leaves spaces built, heated and empty 50% to 66% of time. Whether you work from your home, coffee shop or office is becoming less and less defined, except at yahoo, and yet there are many zoning ordinances that severely limit such activity. Let’s have a few people over to our residence during the day to get work done. Let’s push the desks and display racks aside at night and have the local musicians play to a group of friends and workers. Let’s end the strict definition of what space can be used for what purpose as it just creates space that is not used. Churches, schools, and many public meeting rooms are so underutilized as to be almost criminal considering what they cost to build and maintain. The list goes on and while it may keep builders busy, it seems to be a complete waste of limited resources.

  5. I am on a local plan commission and we have required 50% of the ground floor to be commercial for mixed use near downtown. Builders do not want to build that much commercial and we have been compromising. I think we are giving up on the future. Even if the dollars don’t pay for the commercial in today’s market, the buildings are here for the long term. Anyone else dealing with this issue?

    • Ralph A. Olivier AIA says:


      Don’t get hung up on the “use” issue. The buildings just need to be flexible so that the uses can change over time. While there might not be demand for commercial space today, those spaces can be occupied by residential uses now, and change in 20 years, and change back in 50. So stick with your beliefs, and get that future flexibility built in. Otherwise, the only option is to tear down the buildings as use demands change.

    • Mix use needs to be reinstated across the nation. Mix use as in.allow ones to create their own job. That is how the middle class was made. It is appalling that ones make zoning, which literally takes away ones chance to do their American dream. Thete will never be enough sustainable jobs created. Mix use that only allows rich to have a business, shuts out the majority and does not create diverse, unique areas. European tourists used to visit areas with mix use, as they were unique. Most cannot afford double rent to open a business, nor buy. Of a house is on a busy street and indusyries allowed, a person should have business rigjts also. Disabled, veterans, elderly are often homebound. If your on a board, let all do business.

  6. kerry dragon says:


    I am a student at the Manchester School of Architecture and I found your piece very interesting. I am currently doing a masters project on mix-use typologies for furture urban planning of East Manchester. I am trying to develop a tool which can be used for calculating the best ratio and densities for building uses within the development. Would you be able to tell me a bit more about your place-based zoning tool ideas. Thank you for your help in advance.
    Thank You

    • Hi Kerry,
      Any thoughts on the term “mixed use corridor”? In Tulsa right now, CVS pharmacy is trying to push through a proposal for a box store pharmacy on the end of a neighborhood that is in overwhelming opposition to the development. The area plan calls for “mixed use,” but the term is never explicitly defined. CVS argues that, even though its building is admittedly for a single-use, the development should be allowed because it falls into a mixed-use corridor. By this definition 99.99% of commercial streets in America are mixed use. An Arby’s next door to an auto shop would suffice. Are you running into this kind of thing in your research?

      • But shouldn’t the people who live there have a say?
        When they purchased their homes, was that area zoned residential?
        If so, don’t they have a right to expect that zoning to hold?
        A man bought property, acres, inside a small town, and tried to start a farm there where it was zoned residential. He asked for a blank slate zoning variance and before it could go through the process to be approved, he started planting and other agricultural activities. He sprays chemicals on crops seasonally, and the overspray could affect the health of the people living in the neighborhood, he already has done a lot of burning of refuse, affecting the asthma of those in the neighborhood. “Mixed use zoning” would allow this kind of behavior to go unchecked. Thank goodness the town council used sound judgement to protect the residents and offered a specific zoning variance with stipulations set to protect residents from exposure to agricultural environmental hazards. If you want to be agricultural, purchase land already zoned agricultural and enjoy it. People have a right to expect that their residentially zoned properties will continue to be zoned as residential.

  7. melissa Bialla says:

    A client is looking for mixed use opportunities in the Bay Area. Must qualify for a 1031 Exchange. 10 M cash and 14M exchange. Has anyone been able utilize your ideas in an exchange? Do you know of any that off market opportunities that are available and would qualify?
    I’m a realtor and this sounds great.

  8. I live in a mixed use downtown neighborhood and it is HELL.
    18 wheeler tractor trailer trucks delivering and picking up supplies at 3:30 am. The noise from the commercial businesses disruptive and the lack of the city enforcing basic health and safety ordinances makes it an all together awful experience.

    • I think that is, indeed, the dark side to the mixed use zoning movement.
      The basic health and safety ordinances are why zoning areas were separate to begin with. Who wants to live with manufacturing noise? How many people want to have a hog farm relocate adjacent to their gated community? Mixed use sure smells… doesn’t it?
      Separate zoning allows property owners, business owners, to know that they are safe in operating their businesses and that their homes and families are safe from commercial pollution, whether it me air, or water, or sound or light.


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