Downtowns as Centers of Civic Connection

10 Jul

There’s been a torrent of spirited banter lately about the reemergence of downtown central-cities. Much of this raucous debate pits advocates of urban revitalization, who offer an assortment of anti-sprawl messages as justification for this movement, and those who see suburban growth options as essential to quality of life in America. Adding to the fray are environmentalists who see housing density and alternative forms of transportation as the panacea for confronting our carbon-choked world. Downtown central-cities, they say, will incentivize citizens to relinquish their cars in favor of bikes and walking paths.

These discussions largely ignore a greater significance to the reemergence of center-cities; namely, the recognition of downtowns as epicenters of civic and cultural activity. This represents a shift away from the traditional concept – barely a century old and now antiquated – of downtown as predominately an economic and job center hub.
This primary role for downtowns had been on a steady decline since the 1950s. According to Robert Fogelson, professor of urban studies and history at MIT and author of Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, after World War II, downtowns lost their prominence as places where people “work, shop, do business, and amuse themselves.” As he states in the book, “Downtowns were once thought to be as vital to the well-being of a city as a strong heart was to the well-being of a person.”
Historically the word “downtown” became synonymous with large urban centers, fostering images of traffic, crime, homelessness and varying forms of unsavory behavior. A closer look, however, reveals a wide range of downtown genres – small and large, central-city and suburban, safe and sketchy, chaotic and peaceful, established and emergent. Some downtowns are situated in major urban regions while others are nestled in small-town communities. The senior demographic is prominent in some, college crowds in others.
This new assessment of downtown as centers for civic opportunities makes sense and revives the ancient role of the plaza “forum” or “agora” concept– locales that H.G. Wells affectionately referred to as ideal for “concourse and rendezvous.” This redefinition may bother some who wish to return to the downtown apex of the 1950s, yet the idea is both viable and sustainable.
After decades of decline and identity struggles, American downtowns are making a spirited comeback, serving as a source of attraction not just for workers and shoppers, but residents. All of this suggests a momentous shift in interest among both Boomers and Millennials who are now hip to the benefits of downtown livability.
The Boomer demographic, many of them empty nesters seeking a simplified existence, are flocking to urban centers in record numbers as walkable amenities like dining, sports events and the arts take shape in these areas. Similarly, spirited Millennials are forfeiting suburban amenities in favor of densely populated corridors of activity that appeal to their burgeoning interests and sensibilities.
U.S. Census Bureau data provides factual evidence of this resurgence. Recent reports suggest that downtowns in many of our nation’s most populous metropolitan areas – Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, among others – are growing at double-digit rates. Many urban experts attribute most of this growth to an explosion of new housing and lifestyle amenities popping up in these center-city locales.
This precipitous growth has not been without it’s challenges as local downtown leaders and developers scramble to meet growing housing demands, the need for quality urban schools, and basic conveniences like grocery stores. Trends suggest that this push will likely continue unabated in the foreseeable future.
Brad Segal, President of the firm Progressive Urban Management Associates, a national leader in advancing downtown and community development, says that this recent reversal of fortunes for many downtowns has been profound. “In the post World War II era downtowns pretty much emptied out and became economic liabilities for cities. Now we’re seeing a 180 degree reversal of that as downtowns are now recapturing their traditional role as economic engines for cities,” says Segal. He notes that this growth is not exclusive to large metropolitan downtown markets; that its also occurring is medium and small markets as well. “Frankly I’ve been blown away by what’s occurring in cities like Springfield, Missouri – places I hadn’t visited in over 10 years. It’s fascinating to witness many of the same trends and development patterns common in big city downtowns now occurring in some very unlikely places,” says Segal.
Downtown planning efforts in many locales are responding to this surge of interest by creating a brand identity for their cities. An example of this is in Austin, Texas, which has developed a vibrant music scene, with a number of entertainment venues tucked along its 6th Street corridor.
Indianapolis promotes itself as a spectator-sports mecca, with its downtown activity infused by a robust fan base frequenting college basketball tournaments, pro and minor league baseball games, and the nation’s largest sporting event: the Indianapolis 500.
Chicago touts itself as a tourist destination replete with world-class museums, city and architectural tours, and fine dining in its vast downtown core.
Then there are midsize market downtowns like those found in Davis, California, Evanston, Illinois, and Iowa City, Iowa, each possessing a robust college crowd from surrounding universities.
Traverse City, Michigan, with a population of over 15,000 (142,075 in the surrounding metro area) offers another model: the quintessential rural downtown. Quaintly situated along the Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, the area is primarily known for boating, kayaking, and sailing, except in July, when the city hosts its annual, week-long Cherry Festival that attracts swarms of people to its historic downtown area. In terms of a niche identity for downtown Traverse City, tourism seems to be front and center. The calendar is jammed with events, many of which are designed specifically to attract locals downtown. Other cultural activities, such as the Traverse City Film Festival and Horses by the Bay, draw visitors by the tens of thousands.
For many city leaders the potential impact of downtown on regional economics and culture is what’s creating the most buzz. Kansas City, Missouri; Roanoke, Virginia; and Asheville, North Carolina are among a growing number of cities seeking to capitalize on their unique brand of cultural connection to generate badly needed tax revenues for their downtown areas. Some experts say this is a sound move amid tepid economic times as city and local governments look to draw customers from closer to home.
This certainly rings true for economically ravaged Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, Ohio. For years, downtown Cleveland has struggled to gain traction – beginning in 1960 when manufacturing and heavy industries began their decline and the flight to the suburbs gained momentum. In 1978, Cleveland had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first American city to enter into default since the Great Depression. Despite small glimmers of promise, downtown Cleveland has been stuck in neutral, in its attempts to build a cohesive identity and direction.
There are some successes though: Redevelopment efforts have transformed a downtown corridor along E. Fourth Street into a bustling fine dining and nightlife mecca, demonstrating the appeal that well-constituted areas have on the local populaces and tourists. And the area’s rich ethnic and cultural heritage shows promise as a catalyst for change in the central core. While all of this points to some progress for downtown Cleveland, it still must overcome a heavy stigma associated with crime, poverty, marginal schools and a declining population base to truly achieve civic vibrancy.
Many of our nation’s suburban communities are also setting the pace for downtown civic connection. Naperville, a Chicago suburb and the fifth largest city in Illinois, has established itself as a model for suburban downtowns. This city of 142,000 residents features a cornucopia of sophisticated shops, restaurants and entertainment venues that attract foot traffic to the town center-oriented central district. Open space has been integrated into the cityscape through well-maintained walking paths along the DuPage River, which flows through downtown. Thoughtful planning for the provision of abundant, free parking, train accessibility, and bike lockups enables convenient accessibility to the area both day and night.
Folsom, California, is indicative of a suburban community that fosters civic ties and activities through its historic downtown district. With a population of 70,000 this city located in the eastern portion of rapidly growing Sacramento County draws an eclectic crowd to its old town boardwalk setting replete with saloons, outdoor restaurants, and antique stores. The downtown core also serves as a gathering post for legions of bicyclists who have helped shape Folsom into one of the top bicycling communities in the nation.
During summer, downtown Folsom hums with activity generated by two weekly events: Thursday Night Market, featuring live music, food and shopping, and the Sunday Farmers Market, where frequenters can purchase fresh, locally grown food from area farmers.
Responding to increased pedestrian activity in its downtown core, Folsom in May of 2011 completed its Historic Sutter Street Revitalization Project through a collaborative effort with merchants, area residents, and historic preservationists. This facelift now features improved disability access, on street parking, widened sidewalks to better accommodate pedestrians, as well as benches, bike racks, and abundant shade trees. These enhancements have contributed to a marked increase in civic vitality
In the end, downtown central-cities seem poised to reclaim some of their prominence as magnets of culture and social connection. As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs notes in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “I have been dwelling upon downtowns. This is not because mixtures of primary uses are unneeded elsewhere in cities. On the contrary they are needed, and the success of mixtures downtown (on in the most intensive portions of cities, whatever they are called) is related to the mixture possible in other part of cities.”
Michael Scott is the head content creator with Social Buzz For Cities, Inc. He writes white papers, blogs, and targeted thought pieces for a variety of clients in the urban/economic development space. He can be reached at urbanwebcity.com or urbanwebcity@gmail.com
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