I recently read a blog about the importance of keeping a city’s downtown core vibrant. It made me think about how the failing economy turned Calgary’s downtown into a ‘Ghost Town’. I have to be honest, I don’t go downtown often, but my partner’s career is down there and that was one of the first things that was mentioned during the downturn. As we know, politics, economics and industry are the driving forces that keep such areas alive and well. Urban planners and city developers continue to work hard to provide services and infrastructure in hopes of keeping downtown alive.
Once a hub for the wealthy, the downtown core is now mixed with a variety of income levels and lifestyles of people working and living in the area. Here are the five principles of keeping downtown alive from the Build + Design Construction blog:
Inclusion—Downtowns are the hubs of their regions: epicenters of transportation options, places of diverse entertainment and in-demand housing, and usually a region’s economic engine. While not all downtowns are the same, they do all tend to put into sharp focus the challenges of homelessness, perceptions of crime, shifts in retail buying with vacant storefronts, and a lack of coordinated youth activities. The study found that 29% of residents in downtowns are middle-income—a statistic that combats the notion that only wealthy or very low-income people live downtown. As downtowns add more and more expensive new housing, cities need to work to protect housing stock that maintains the diversity of options.
Economy— The International Downtown Association (IDA) found that downtowns constitute an average of just 3% of city land area but yield much higher proportions of overall assessed value. Not only is a downtown’s footprint valuable, but it also generates significant tax revenue. In my work as a planner for downtown Minneapolis, I viewed this as an opportunity to design regulations flexibly for changing markets and a public realm to catalyze new development. Downtowns have an opportunity to test new models for building up, mixing uses, and eliminating barriers to redevelopment. The resulting added tax revenue bolsters a city’s ability to support neighborhoods outside of the downtown.
Vibrancy—On average, the populations of the downtowns studied grew by 27% from 2010 to 2016 compared to only 7% citywide. The renewed interest in downtown living of recent years has brought people closer to work, entertainment, transit, and shopping. They also trade life in less-dense neighborhoods or suburbs for an opportunity to be among more people. A critical mass of people means you rub shoulders with neighbors and strangers alike. More density of individuals in an area also drives amenities for the collective whole—retail, transit options, parks, and then more housing. This in turn translates to better access and opportunities for everyone.
Identity—Most downtowns are the original city—the place where people first set up businesses and put down roots. Like Minneapolis, many cities began next to water and grew organically. Downtowns usually hold the lion’s share of the elements that establish a city’s identity—civic places and spaces, historic buildings, museums, parks, public art. A downtown builds its brand on its status as a unique place to live, work, and visit.
Resilience—A region builds resilience to economic, social, and environmental shocks by taking deliberate action. Center cities have unusual strengths—economic performance, diversity, density and supply of resources—that help them weather economic downturns and other kinds of disruptions better than other neighborhoods. The cities that will prove especially resilient, however, are those that support residents who could get left behind because they lack the economic and social resources to weather personal storms.
As the economy slowly but surely improves across the country and in Calgary, I believe the principles described above are the best chances that downtown communities can thrive and grow, accommodating all individuals that call the core their place of work or home.
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