City centers share several common characteristics but also vary in significant ways. City centers have a central business district that serve, surrounding neighborhoods and settlements, the smallest being the downtowns in small towns and the largest being a principle downtown within a metropolitan region.
Downtowns are traditional city centers, which grew at commercial convergence points, often with an easy-to-implement gridiron pattern of parcels. Downtown parcels were – and often remain — small as they were created before very large amounts of capital became available. Traditional downtowns also include historic buildings, the extent of which varies among downtowns but always make downtowns distinct from other places.
New “town centers” are another form of city center. New construction creates dense mixed-use to address unmet demand urban housing and the sense of community that comes with pedestrian-oriented retail and amenities. New town centers are special opportunities. Factors for their success will be discussed by Centers and Edges in 2011.
Urban centers also vary in scale and intensity. Small town downtowns serve as central business districts, often accompanied by basic government services. Regional centers serve large metropolitan areas as preeminent locations for office and government space, but the extent of retail varies from the minimum needed to support adaytime workforce (where regional retail has gravitated elsewhere) to a full spectrum of retail (if the urban center has retained retail advantages). City centers and suburban activity centers fall between these extremes. All types of urban centers derive benefits for housing, but not all centers have succeeded in retaining and attracting housing — which is often a function of public policy.