Building Boom Reshapes City Skylines Urban Planners Turn to Culture, Recreation, and Entertainment to Reinvent Downtowns

By Sam Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

Building Boom Reshapes City Skylines Urban Planners Turn to Culture, Recreation, and Entertainment to Reinvent Downtowns


Sam Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


"Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads, and the Nation's Freight Handler."

This description, penned early in the century by the poet Carl Sandburg, captured the essence of Chicago at the height of the Industrial Age.

Like most American cities then, this was a bursting commercial center swollen with immigrants, shrouded in factory smoke, rising girder by girder toward the clouds. Today, after a generation of decline, many of America's urban cores are marching again toward grandeur. From Los Angeles to Boston, Dallas to Detroit, civic leaders are making quiet progress in efforts to make downtowns livelier and more livable, to wrest lost business back from suburbs, and restore crumbling neighborhoods. It's an enormous job with great implications for the future of urban life in America and the nation's long-term economic viability. It's a process complicated by past failures, by the changing nature of commerce, and a shrinking federal budget. But this round of restoration, unlike others, seems to prosper from a notion Sandburg might never have imagined: That the growling and muscled cities of decades past might reinvent themselves as centers for entertainment, culture, and recreation. "What we're seeing now is a major shift in the idea of what a downtown should be," says William Howard, an urban studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's a more holistic point of view that a downtown is not just a collection of office buildings, but a place where people live and work and play as well." For many cities, this new concept is paying dividends. Downtown amenities, often centered around new stadiums or waterfront districts, are credited for enlivening once-stagnant industrial areas in Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Baltimore. Even cities like Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Boston, and San Francisco - which are known for vibrant urban neighborhoods - have concentrated development efforts on "mixed-use" districts composed of shops, offices, restaurants, parks, sports facilities, theaters, museums, and apartments. The new approach reflects a maturation born of countless failures. In years past, experts say, the most common urban development strategy revolved around a single megaproject - often a convention center or high-rise office complex - financed by government or big corporations. Such projects, the theory went, would serve as magnets for peripheral growth. "The urban renewal movement of the 1960s and '70s decimated downtowns," says Betsy King, president of the International Downtown Association in Washington. "The idea was that if you build something huge and clear the land around it, developers will come. More often than not, it didn't play out that way." According to Ms. King, the days of the monolithic project are largely over. At present, she notes, skyscraper construction has nearly ground to a halt, and the federal government has backed away from its prior role as chief urban financier. …

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