Guest author Peter Kageyama (For the Love of Cities) will be speaking at DCI’s annual conference, Vibrant Colorado Downtowns, September 10-13, 2013.
For the past several years I have been lucky enough to travel all over the US and the world and I can tell you that the “9 to 5” downtown is seen all over the world. A generation ago as people and businesses fled to the suburbs, leaving their once thriving downtowns as the proverbial ghost towns. Today we are seeing renewed interest in downtowns, especially amongst young people who love the walkability of these areas, the authenticity of them and even the grittiness of them. And businesses are keen to go where they know they can recruit talent, especially this young talent. Remember, downtowns are the psychic centers of our communities.
If downtown is moribund, lifeless after dark and unlovable, it becomes much, much harder to improve our suburbs because our core is not healthy. I often hear from city leaders how they get heat from their suburban constituents who say that too much attention is being paid to downtowns. They ask me my opinion and I tell them: not enough attention is paid to our downtowns. That may be politically difficult for some to embrace, but the numbers do not lie. Downtown urban areas are the economic engines for regions. Invest a dollar in downtown and you get a significant multiplier on that dollar. Less so with our outlying areas with much more diffused populations, diffused businesses and spread out infrastructure. In a time of limited resources, you want to make investments with the best returns and an investment in downtown is a high yield investment.
Independent Retailers Create Unique Downtowns
Despite this renewed interest in downtowns, retail in the heart of our cities has proven to be problematic. Retail behaviors have changed along with the attendant technologies that make downtown retail a challenge but one that is worth taking on. We may like the convenience, selection or pricing of the big box retail outlets, but they are not distinctive. They are the same from place to place, country to country.
Downtown retail, also know as “High Street” throughout the commonwealth countries, cannot directly compete with Home Depot, Best Buy or Walmart. When did you last see a hardware store downtown? But these shops can provide unique and authentic retail experiences that you would not be able to get elsewhere. If you look at the retail that works in your downtown you will find that it is not based on better prices or greater selection. It will often be local, custom, quirky and unreplicable by those big box retailers. If the offer is good enough and interesting enough, people will come.
Free Parking at a Price
Inevitably conversations about downtowns also become conversations about parking. Some see parking fees as an impediment to more people downtown. They say that the big box retailers have plenty of free parking so we should not disincentivize folks from coming downtown by having high parking fees, or even any parking fees.
Donald Schoub argues compellingly in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, that free parking has an externalized cost–paid for by the people who will use downtown. While it seems logical that more cars downtown would mean more people, I do not believe that is the case. More cars downtown actually has an alienating effect on those of us who are on foot, on bikes, and engaged with our downtowns. Simply put: cars are not people. I can hear the outcry – but cars are driven by people. True, but once you get behind the wheel of your car, you cease to be a person and I can prove it to you.
Think about those driving behaviors we all (occasionally) exhibit: we honk our horns, we cut in and out of lanes, we speed, we yell obscenities and even flip people the bird. When was the last time you ever did any of those types of behaviors when you were walking or standing line somewhere? Hopefully never. You don’t because you see the other person, you look them in the eye and as a result you behave better—more like someone who lives in a civilized community.
When you drive, you cannot see the other person. Wrapped in two tons of metal and plastic, they are not human but rather an impediment to you as you seek to get home, to work or to school. More cars on the road encourage more of this uncivilized behavior. We need to find ways to get people out of their cars and interacting with each other and their environment. When this happens, lots of good things accrue in our cities, not the least of which is a healthier and ultimately happier citizen.
So if you are looking for a place to start, begin with the simple premise of increasing people’s ability to see other people and you will be well on your way toward a better, more vital downtown. We are social creatures, endlessly fascinated by each other, and if you can increase the people-watching opportunities, you start to improve downtown. This can be downtown seating, a dog park, more outdoor cafés or events. Bigger infrastructure and projects can follow but start with this simple notion.
Peter Kageyama is a community and economic development consultant based in St. Petersburg, FL. Peter will provide the keynote address at the 2013 Governor’s Awards Gala and the closing address at the DCI conference. He is the former President of Creative Tampa Bay, a grassroots community change organization. He has spoken all over the world about bottom up community development and the amazing people that are making change happen. His book, For the Love of Cities, was recognized by Planetizen as a Top 10 Book for 2012 in urban planning, design and development. All full DCI conference registrants will receive a complimentary copy. Register now for DCI’s 2013 Conference, Vibrant Colorado Downtowns, to be held September 10-13, 2013 in Grand Junction!