Downtowns, Past and Present

By Poitras, Claire | Urban History Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Downtowns, Past and Present


Poitras, Claire, Urban History Review


In the last two decades, analysts of urban change have focused on the evolution of metropolitan areas that have increasingly taken the form of "fragmented mixtures of employment and residential settings, combining urban and suburban characteristic." (1) Edge cities, edgeless cities, exurbs, boomburbs, metroburbs, development corridors, and nodes represent a new phase in the history of the city. As new office buildings have been rising in suburban downtowns or edge cities, former city centres have undergone major shifts in their form and function. Although most Canadian cities maintained thriving downtowns throughout the twentieth century, retail and office decentralization has affected the economic health of city centres. Initially, what attracted businesses and people to downtown? How did downtown evolve from being the city's principal magnet to a business district among many others? What types of urban revitalization efforts were carried out and what were their outcomes?

Since the middle of the 1990s, North American urban scholars have looked at the ways in which downtown areas have recovered after years of decline and neglect. Building on evidence regarding population growth (2) and major investments in the entertainment and cultural sectors, (3) scholars have shown that downtowns have rebounded. Moreover, even though many observers of the urban scene have predicted their extinction due to the increased use of communication technologies, in the last decade or so, architectural icons of downtowns and city centres such as skyscrapers or tall buildings (4) have reappeared in the urban landscape. The idea to devote this special issue to the developments that have transformed downtowns was in many ways in response to the nature of contemporary urban challenges. In the latter half of the 1990s, urban studies have focused on the renewal of downtown cores. These studies have shown how new urban activities and new players have replaced those that had defined the heart of western cities since the end of the nineteenth century. Thus, the traditional functions of the central business district represented by the head offices of major corporations, financial institutions, large department stores, or entertainment centres have given way to residential units, new shopping malls, and facilities designed for cultural and tourism activities. (5) For their part, historians have also highlighted the transitory nature of the exclusive character of downtowns as they developed at the turn of the twentieth century. (6)

Planning for this special issue revolved upon the initial premise that, despite their diminished function and declining role in contemporary urban life, downtowns have maintained a certain specificity of form and function. However, since the end of the nineteenth century, this individuality has been subject to constant renewal. By emphasizing the importance of programs and policies--and their underlying discourses--that have been carried out in downtown areas throughout the twentieth century, many historians and urban scholars have supported this hypothesis of a specificity constantly under renewal. (7) While senior levels of government in Canada and the United States have contributed greatly to the expansion of the suburban way of life by financing the construction of road and freeway networks, access to private property ownership, and the provision of public services, particularly in the area of education, their involvement in the revitalization of downtowns has also been far from negligible.

Presentation of Papers

The papers in this special issue all deal with the city during the period following the Second World War. This new context--that saw the emergence of new players, as well as the proliferation of unique challenges associated with redevelopment and de-industrialization--corresponded to a major transformative phase in the role of downtowns, as well as in their physical shape and underlying ideals.

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