Revitalising America's Downtowns in the Twenty-First Century

By Kemp, Roger L.; Stephani, Carl J. | Contemporary Review, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Revitalising America's Downtowns in the Twenty-First Century


Kemp, Roger L., Stephani, Carl J., Contemporary Review


MANY citizens have left downtown areas for the suburbs over the years. Also, many businesses have moved to the shopping mall over the years. Much of this was brought about by the development and expansion of the Interstate Highway System, a product of the mid-1950s, which is still evolving today! Traditionally, a family wanted to raise its children in a single-family house with a yard, away from the traffic and noise of the downtowns. This seemed like the 'American Dream' for many years, and is now changing.

A quick overview of history would reveal that, as the highway system expanded, many residential subdivisions were developed in the suburbs. Families moved there for the reasons noted above. This trend went on for several decades. In the 1950s there was typically one car in a family. As mothers went to work over the years, they acquired cars too. Nowadays, it seems many children over the legal driving age in every state have cars. Older citizens recall seeing old homes with single car garages, newer homes with two-car garages, and more recent homes with three-car garages. A colleague was recently visiting one of the nation's growth states, and saw some new homes with four-car garages.

Things are now changing! There are families where the children have grown, and they would like to relocate in urban downtown areas. There are young professionals who would like to focus on their respective jobs before starting a family. They wish to locate in inner-city areas and relocate to the suburbs later in life. There's also another group, consisting of people who would like to live their lives without having a vehicle. Hence the new type of residential developments around public transit stations called Transit Oriented Developments (TODs). There is also a rapidly developing market for condominiums and townhouses that are located next to light-rail public transit systems.

There is a national need, a community one too, to make downtowns attractive, which requires a redevelopment effort to make them more livable. Such positive movements require states, and their local governments, and especially those officials who are responsible for managing downtowns, to advocate changes that will benefit downtown areas. We think history has gone, or is going, full circle in this regard. We were recently looking at a picture of a high-rise residential area in the Lower East Side of New York City from a century ago. Individuals and families lived in several storey residential structures, with 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. Then over the years we separated our land uses as we imposed pyramidal zoning on our cities. After all, you would not want citizens living in commercial or industrial areas. This way of thinking is now rapidly changing.

If communities want to revitalize their downtown areas, they must change their zoning laws to allow for mixed uses of commercial (on the ground floor) and residential (on the floors above that). Also, arts, entertainment, and culture are coming back to downtown areas. Lately, citizens have seen their city officials using libraries and museums as tools to stimulate economic development. Also, cities are trying to lure educational institutions and non-profit organizations back downtown. We recently read some states are even relocating some of their offices from the suburbs back into their downtown areas.

There's also a big trend to preserve what's left of nature in our downtown areas, and to restore what's been removed over the decades, as well as to expand various aspects of nature. This includes parks, wetlands, waterways, and also enhanced pedestrian access and movement through the use of walkways, bikeways, plazas, and the widening of public areas to accommodate people as opposed to cars.

Many citizens have thought that their downtowns were designed by cars. …

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