September 1, 2001 - From the September, 2001 issue

Choosing A Future For Your Downtown: How Regions Are Building Creative Downtowns

As governance continues its evolution and our leaders begin to realize that regions must be creative, livable, and sustainable to truly flourish, one begins to realize that the Downtown cores left to decay when our society retreated to the suburbs may represent our last best hope for rekindling our regions and reviving the notion of "place matters." In an attempt to codify why these downtown cores have such potential, TPR is pleased to excerpt the Alliance for Regional Stewarship's "Downtowns of the Future: Opportunities for Regional Stewards."

By: Mary Jo Waits, Doug Henton & Chi Nguyen

Clearly, people looking out for the future of downtowns will want to understand specific demographic and economic trends But that understanding is just the first step. How a city chooses to take what it has and put it into play amid these emerging trends will determine its downtown's future and how it will grow.

Practically every metropolitan region in the United States and around the world is thinking about how to make itself attractive to the creative, "footloose" entrepreneurial companies and highly skilled people who are driving the growing knowledge-based and technology sectors. Getting downtown boosters to focus on building their creativity advantage is likely to require a revolution in perspective. Joel Kotkin, author of "The Renaissance of Cities," has found that many cities continue to base their downtown strategy on the Industrial Age paradigm of high-rises or massive factories . These strategies are not in sync with the technology and advanced service businesses, workforce, horizontal architecture and interactive venues that are beginning to define an idea-driven economy and that offer significant new opportunities for downtowns in this century.

Given what we now know about these individuals and companies, a strategy that aims at building expertise, diversity and interaction appears to be one way to win in the new geography sweepstakes. Certainly, it can form a framework for evaluating whether a trend is good or bad for creative dynamics and for deciding the next steps to take in optimizing the positive aspects of city centers and minimizing or eliminating the downsides.

Grow Your Expertise

A creatively dynamic downtown must attract, access, create and use knowledgeable and innovative people. But part of a downtown's "expertise" also grows out of its uniqueness of place or economic specialty. Cities should adopt strategies for their downtowns that reinforce their special role in the metropolitan economy and build on the distinctive urban assets that are valued by knowledge workers. The menu for action is big, but the general outline for effort should focus on the following strategies:

• Tap the knowledge assets in their midst. These assets include universities and medical research centers, any clusters of advanced services or soft technology companies and any "new urbanites."

• Build real estate "product" that fits with small, fast-growing new economy companies. Behind these projects is the recognition that technology-focused entrepreneurial companies need office space with flexible lease arrangements in wired buildings with 24-hour services, including security and restaurants.

• Make livability a hallmark of downtown development. Cities must pay more attention to a broad array of community amenities and housing types to accommodate the needs of an increasingly diverse group of potential downtown consumers. Evidence is emerging, for example, that potential workers in developing high-tech industries put little stock in the traditional tools of downtown development-big stadiums, large convention centers, and high-rise office complexes. Instead, they seek regions that offer smaller-scale quality-of-life amenities (such as parks) and areas full of thriving cafes, restaurants, music venues, art galleries, and live-work spaces.

• Build clusters of skilled workers and firms as quickly as possible. [T]he pursuit of critical mass needs to pervade efforts to build creative downtowns. As more talent and firms either move into or start in an area, they make that location more attractive for subsequent firms and skilled workers to follow. Once a critical mass of knowledge workers or companies develops in a core area, it can be self-perpetuating.

• Fix the schools at the core. If a region's lowest-achieving schools, based on percentile ranking of standardized test scores and graduation rates, are near or in downtown areas, then fixing those schools is a critical part of growing and attracting talent.

Grow Your Diversity

Even though diversity can make an important contribution to creative dynamics and regional growth, cultivating diversity is a new development focus for most communities. They may be dealing with the challenges arising from multiethnic communities and new immigrants, such as bilingual classrooms or segregated neighborhoods, but few are reaching out in a systematic way to recruit and integrate people from other countries and cultures into their communities. This can change, with a few key steps.

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• Think multiage, multiethnic melting pot for long-term workforce viability. Blacks and Hispanics account for 18-percent of middle-aged Americans but 33-percent of the country's youth. Throw a fast-growing Asian-American population into the mix and it's clear that collectively these groups will be transforming markets, talent pools, and regional advantages.

• Learn more about the way in which diversity and creativity intersect. Tolerance and inclusion appear to be hallmarks of creative areas. Silicon Valley is legendary for its embrace of risk takers and technology "geeks." Art and cultural centers such as Manhattan and the San Francisco Bay Area are safe havens for a wide range of lifestyles and mind-sets. No doubt, these areas score high on such diversity measures as numbers of Hispanics per 1,000 people or entrepreneurs per 1,000 or gays per 1,000. But their creativity edge has more dimensions than big numbers of immigrants or artists. Importantly, their local culture encourages information sharing and networking, and participation from different geographic, cultural, educational, socioeconomic, and generational groups which opens the door to creativity.

• Be wary of overwhelming a place and killing what it is (gentrification). The march to find cool space amidst "urban infrastructure" can trample the very amenities and diversity that made those cool spaces to begin with. As the tech companies move into urban cores, they are changing, even displacing, neighborhoods and driving downtown rents up so high that the original fare of cafes, restaurants, music venues, and art galleries can't afford to stay.

Grow Your Interaction

For a downtown to have a strong interactive edge, lots of threads must be woven together: fiber-optic cable that supports electronic connectivity, pedestrian-oriented squares and streets that support face-to-face encounters, airport service that makes global and regional networking easy, to name just a few. As opportunities for interaction on multiple scales and venues occur, the community's strength and resource base for creative dynamics grow. Suggestions to consider:

• Design public and private spaces so as to promote interaction. As the Starbucks phenomenon reveals, most Americans have a renewed yearning for neighborhood-scale "places" where they can have informal meetings and feel connected to their community. Moreover, the "cleaner" nature of the new economy makes it possible to locate homes, workplaces, and recreational areas closer together.

• Seed networks and alliances. Individuals and firms are shifting away from self-reliance and toward a new model that places more value on alliances and networks. Things change so fast that networks become vital sources of information and new ideas for them. Industry groups and associations help them to maintain networks and facilitate face-to-face contact. New communications technologies are critical for these purposes and in particular for training and joint production.

• Ramp up telecommunication capacity. With the advent of the Internet-based activities and its new demands for bandwidth and power, downtowns with a major presence of fiber-optic lines well above those elsewhere in the metropolitan region can capture both new emerging Internet companies and other businesses using the Internet. The importance of telecommunication capacity for all industry is strikingly clear when one considers that experts say the Internet is still in its infancy.

Regional Stewards Make [It] Work

[W]hen executives create business strategy, they project themselves and their organizations into the future, creating a path from where they are now to where they want to be some years down the road. In competitive markets, though, no one expects to formulate a detailed long-term plan and follow it mindlessly. As soon as you start down that path, you begin learning-about new conditions, competitors' actions, the quality of your preparations, and so forth-and you need to respond flexibly to what you learn.

The lesson of business leadership stands today for community leadership. If civic leaders are basing a downtown strategy solely on what's been and what's possible today, their urban core may not be in a very good position two to five years later. Daily changes in technology, communication, commerce, and demography are rearranging how the world works. Business leaders and elected officials who do not keep up and hold on to old views of the world are likely to make bad decisions-decisions that can undermine their community's competitive advantage and erode the value of any strategy they develop.

Given the traditional never-ending struggle for downtown economic viability, it is even more important that city and regional planners never lock themselves into one strategy or view only, but manage instead to evolve their downtowns to fit with sustainable national trends (not fads) and unique local conditions. The chances for building vibrant regions and new downtowns are greatly enhanced when regional and city leaders focus on the interaction of economic activity, in-migration, physical development, civic organizations and governance. They can take the economic and physical city as the starting framework for development, but they must also understand the role of public and private institutions (good schools and less crime), neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and social classes in building downtowns of the future.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.