The Fall and Rise of America’s Downtowns – Part2

“Nothing is more important than an idea whose time has come.”  Victor Hugo

After a period of general decline, downtowns are rising again but for new reasons.  Many downtowns stopped being commercial centers decades ago.  But where demand for downtown retail and employment space remains weak, downtowns possess intrinsic advantages that can be capitalized upon.

Culture. The resurgence of downtowns results — in large part – from a shifting focus from being centers of commerce to being cultural attractions with things to enjoy, people to watch, and a sense of place worth being in.  Downtowns remain an enduring icon of the center for community life by being cultural centers.  Live theater, visual art, and music halls often chose to be downtown, as they need not meet the “location criteria” imposed by retail brokers. Civic uses like libraries and post offices are obvious downtown attractions.

Events also play a role, as can well designed plazas and parks (see Urban Parks as Downtown Attractions).  A steady flow of people to these uses and activities can bring, in turn, restaurants and coffeehouses, galleries, and boutiques, and provide a foothold for revitalizing places that have lost their advantage as retail centers.

A good example of this is Miller Plaza.  Chattanooga’s downtown was in decline when city leaders made a public investment in this civic amenity and place for gathering.  This was part of a revitalization masterplan (project managed by the author) that focused on the arts, housing, and green businesses.  Civic buildings frame the Plaza: creating a more complete sense of place and delivering people to assure adequate activity.

During most days, the plaza offers a pleasant respite, but the Plaza is also the location for concerts and performances .  A stage is part of one civic building and the Plaza was designed to be used for large gatherings.

Cultural Destination, Miller Plaza, Chattanooga

Miller Plaza set the stage for concerts and other cultural events.

Aerial view of Miller Plaza, Chattanooga.

Aerial view of Miller Plaza during a performance and framed by civic buildings.

My hometown of Naperville, Illinois, also illustrates this type of resurgence.  In downtown Naperville, historic buildings date to the 19th century but their charm could not withstand economic decline that came with competition from shopping malls.  Public works — a narrow riverfront park, a new central library, and a new city hall – halted the decline by maintaining downtown Naperville as a destination.  But the upturn came — and I am not kidding about this — when Starbucks moved into the middle of the struggling commercial district.  Quickly, downtown was recognized as a place to be – to see and be seen.  Nice restaurants followed.  Mom & pop stores upgraded.  Then national retailers came and – to get in on the action – agreed to depart from their standard box-facing-parking-lot suburban formats and squeeze into smaller buildings with traditional street-facing entrances.  Most recently townhouses and condominiums have been built at surprisingly high densities for this suburban city.

Major retailers using urban formats in downtown Naperville.

Major retailers using urban formats in downtown Naperville.

Downtown remade as social focal point inNaperville IL.

Downtown remade as social focal point in Naperville IL.

Demographic Trends. New demand for urban housing has also fueled the resurgence of downtowns.  Rich in amenities, downtowns have gained popularity with people of all ages. While urban centers have long been attractive to young professionals and creative types, downtowns are becoming a magnet for seniors and empty-nesters.

Mixed-use housing over retail along pedestrian paseo / passage, in downtown San Jose.

New housing and pedestrian places have revitalized downtown San Jose.

There they can walk to the library, bank, post office, restaurants, coffee houses, theaters, museums, and transit.  And as a downtown’s population grows, so does its availability and selection of shops, services, and amenities.

Baby boomers remain the largest age cohort in America.  Their sheer numbers and buying power will support a major return to urban housing.  As they reach late middle-age, boomers’ preferences are shifting new construction away from suburban locations toward central places where they can engage in cultural pursuits and age in place (from “The Coming Demand” by Dowell Myer).

Credit: Matt Taecker. Adaptation of chart in “The Coming Demand” by Dowell Myer.

As boomers age, new construction is shifting to appealing urban locations.

Credit: Matt Taecker. 2000 census demographics simplified to highlight baby boom bulge.

As baby boomers age, their housing preferences change.

Car-free living is easy downtown, and offers older people a chance to “age in place” — within the communities where they have invested themselves.  Seniors are empowered by walkable and transit-rich communities, where needs can be met on foot with more distant locations available by bus or rail.  A 2005 AARP Public Policy Institute report notes that most seniors would prefer to live near retail, culture and transit, rather than bucolic suburban settings.

The New Economy. Young well-educated workers also show a preference for historic downtowns and newer urban centers. Downtowns offer lifestyle options and a sense of vitality that attract many young and educated workers.  Downtowns offer exceptional access not just to local cultural venues and attractions, but also to whole regions via transit.

Downtowns with attractive settings are well positioned to attract a new generation of service-, information- and technology-based workers – which continue to comprise an increasing proportion of all jobs.  Because employers in these sectors have historically chosen to locate near workers with the right skills, many downtowns have already become favored employment centers – a shift from times when businesses principally chose locations to gain access to markets, and natural resources and other manufacturing inputs.

In an emerging trend, innovative businesses are seeking out downtowns and other urban “hubs” because they can attract and nourish creative employees with sophisticated skills and lifestyle expectations.  A noticeable influx of high-tech companies and start-ups are choosing downtowns and other centers because of street life, urban amenities, buildings with character, and other factors that add up to a sophisticated entrepreneurial environment.

“When cities collect networks of entrepreneurial firms, smart people, universities and other supporting institutions in close proximity, incredible things happen,” said Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute in a recent white paper. With urban clusters, “[p]eople engage. Specializations converge. Ideas collide and flourish. New inventions and processes emerge”.

Not surprisingly, the intellects that fuel innovation find the full-service complexity of urban environments to be a better fit than cubicles and office parks that are cut off from everything but the freeway.   Innovation requires ferment with multiple ways to connect with colleagues and other resources.  For most businesses, extreme levels of face-to-face collaboration can’t be supported as well in office parks or on-line.

This is especially true when innovators in small creative firms benefit from connecting on an informal basis.  (In addition to the shift away from manufacturing to information and service sectors, today’s “new economy” has smaller companies on average and with over half of all workers are employed by businesses with fewer than one hundred employees.)  Downtowns provide a physical convergence of multi-faceted opportunities, not the least of which is  “crowd-sourcing”  — where small independent businesses network to deliver flexible and dynamic services that are typical of larger companies.


Hi-tech over retail in San Francisco's South of Market (SOMA).

Hi-tech over retail in San Francisco's South of Market (SOMA).

On the Rise. While many downtowns have declined in the last half-century, there are trends that suggest a turn around.  Few downtowns will find their relevance in the past.  New trends are at work.  Major retailers have often departed, but cultural uses and a sense of place remain — and urban livability factors like these have their advantages.  Urban housing will increasingly address needs faced by aging boomers, and continues to appeal to young well-educated workers especially within innovative businesses.   And new trends will emerge as downtowns and other city centers have increasing relevance in an era of strained resources and cultural fragmentation.