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The American Dream Moves Downtown

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Roger L. Kemp
November 15, 2016

Revitalizing urban life with both nature and culture may benefit communities and citizens alike in the future.

In mid-20th century America, the dream was to raise children in a single-family house with a yard away from the traffic and noise in our downtown areas. The U.S. highway system stretched out to new residential subdivisions in the suburbs and homes added more and more garages for everyone’s cars. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System (EIHS) led to the suburbanization of America, which continues to the present day, more than a half-century after its construction.

Downtown Trends

Major trends now underway in U.S. downtowns include:

  • Restoring and enhancing nature, such as ponds, parks and even urban farms.
  • Integrating commercial and residential functions in multistory buildings.
  • Making public transit available, usually light-rail systems.
  • Restoring the public infrastructure to favor people over cars.
  • Combining landscaping with the restoration of all aspects of the public infrastructure.
  • Converting surface parking lots into parks, gardens and open spaces.
  • Attracting culture, the arts and entertainment facilities.
  • Attracting educational institutions and nonprofit organizations.
  • Attracting or keeping smaller specialized businesses downtown while bigger businesses relocate in malls or “big box” sites.
  • Supporting ethnic and niche stores, such as markets, delicatessens, bakeries and restaurants.
  • Providing a sense of “public place” in the core of downtowns to ensure that shared spaces feel truly shared.

street-1246652_640This trend now is in the process of reversing. The children born in the middle of the 20th century are now grown and older parents are relocating to more convenient downtown areas. Young professionals, focusing on their respective jobs, head toward inner-city areas, thus postponing the American dream of starting a family and moving to the suburbs until later in life. Another group of urban dwellers consists of those who would like to live without needing a vehicle. Hence, a new type of residential development has emerged around public transit stations, called Transit-Oriented Developments. The market for condominiums and townhouses located next to public light-rail transit systems has developed rapidly in recent decades.

Now the challenge for communities is to make downtowns more attractive and more livable. Government planners at the state and local levels need to advocate for changes that will benefit downtown areas. One model is the high-rise residential area of the Lower East Side of New York City. There, individuals and families lived in multistory residential structures that featured an assortment of commercial businesses located on the ground floor. All of the restaurants, markets, and other types of commercial activity took place at street level.

It’s also great for those commercial businesses established on the ground level to have their market built-in above them. Rezoning downtowns to allow more residential units above ground-level businesses is the wave of the future. If you build them, people will come, especially if there’s public transit in the area.

In addition to such mixed-use zoning—the blending of commercial and residential—thriving communities should increasingly bring arts, entertainment and culture back to downtown areas. Some cities have used libraries and museums as tools to stimulate economic development, while others are trying to lure educational institutions and nonprofit organizations back downtown.

There is also a big trend to preserve what’s left of nature in urban environments, restoring what has been removed over the decades. Cities are expanding parks, wetlands and waterways. They are enhancing pedestrian access and movement by narrowing the streets and widening walkways, bikeways, plazas and other public areas, reversing the car-centric planning of the previous century. This trend, too, has facilitated the movement of people back to downtown areas.

When successful, these efforts stimulate the local economy and attract the type of businesses, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations that would benefit from revitalized downtown areas. Additional economic-development incentives would help attract desirable private, educational and nonprofit institutions to downtowns. However, selling local public officials on such incentives requires a clear demonstration of their reasonableness and long-term benefits to the taxpayers and all of the citizens of the community. A nice downtown should serve as a great public place not only for those who live there but also for other citizens in the area who come to work, shop, eat or participate in cultural attractions.

Prudent economic-development incentives that promote downtown renewal are a wise way to generate revenues without raising taxes and can assist in balancing a community’s budget. Most cities evolved piecemeal over the years and now need to be retrofitted and redesigned for the future.

Planning and zoning regulations should be in place to accommodate mixed land-uses, infill and redevelopment projects. Call it New Urbanism, Sustainability, Pedestrian Cities, Healthy Cities, Inner-City Renewal or the Green Cities Movement—these practices can be applied to projects of all sizes to promote livability in a single building, on a full block, in a neighborhood and even an entire community.

AuthorRoger L. Kemp, MPA, MBA, DPA, Ph.D., ICMA-CM, is a professional in residence, Department of Public Management, School of Public Service, Henry C. Lee College, at the University of New Haven. Kemps is also a distinguished adjunct professor at Golden Gate University. He was a city manager for a quarter century in California, New Jersey and Connecticut. Email: [email protected].

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