A few years back, I was touring the downtown of a community in northeast, Ohio, and had a bit of an epiphany regarding the true importance of downtown. City leaders had invited me to their community to discuss strategies to revitalize. Like thousands of cities across the country, their best days appeared to be behind them and they were struggling to understand why they continued to lose their best and brightest and why every year their town looked a little worse. It’s a sad story of course, for every person that resides in these places knows they live somewhere that is worse today, than yesterday.
As we toured, we covered the typical ground. We discussed what could be done about vacant and abandoned buildings. We talked about strategies to improve storefronts, attract businesses and make downtown more inviting. We talked about all of the things that the city needed to tackle if they had any hope of altering their trajectory and stemming their decline.
Throughout our conversations, my tour guides mentioned multiple times that only “vagrants” used their downtown. This struck me as odd, if not a bit funny. Community leaders felt like local people didn’t frequent the downtown, but only undesirables. This seemed a little far fetched to me to begin with, but the more I considered it, the more it made sense. Due to a number of factors, including changes in local legislation and the city’s investment priorities, downtown had slowly ceased to be the heart of the community and instead, had become the dregs.
This town’s fate should not have been a surprise to anyone. The downtown had been neglected, mistreated, and ignored for decades. City leaders had placed priorities elsewhere, and over the years, had taken what once was the center of town and effectively killed it. They didn’t try to relocate it or try to change it, they offed it. In the end, I realized the comments made were right. They had turned the heart of the community into a place that everyone in the community avoided. And why would anyone visit downtown? It no longer offered anything that most people in the community wanted or needed. As it was abandoned; people no longer wanted or needed to go there for anything. And as is the nature of things, as some move out, others move in. The element that began filling the downtown is not what city leaders wanted, but that is exactly what they had unknowingly asked for. As building emptied out, stores left, offices closed, codes stopped being enforced, legislation changed, the heart of the community slowly ceased beating, while everyone simply watched. And in a good gesture gone wrong, this community turned the public square into a war memorial, thus finalizing the demise.
I have worked in revitalization going back quite awhile. I always understood that it was important to have a vibrant downtown because it meant jobs, local investment, increased tourism and that more money was retained in the economy. It was on this day that I realized a healthy downtown is so much more than dollars. Since the advent of the agora in ancient Greece thousands of years ago, people have understood that for a city to function, it must offer a public place for people to gather. This is the reason that every single city built prior to the second half of the 20th century, was constructed around a public gathering place. Downtowns were not built on accident and they did not occur by happenstance; they are the fundamental heart of a city and we have known this for thousands of years. When we let the downtown die, we are in essence, putting a community on life support. The body cannot function without the heart and a city cannot function without a downtown.
I asked my tour guides, what public place had replaced the downtown. They had no answer. I asked them where people gathered. They had no answer. I then took it a step further and asked them what is it that makes people feel attached to their community and keeps them from leaving. Still, no answer.
This is what I realized that day. That for all the economic benefits of a vibrant and healthy downtown, its importance is so much greater than that. Downtown is the center of the community and it is where people have always gone to gather together. Take away all the reasons people use the downtown and there is nothing left. People don’t visit empty buildings and they sure as hell don’t visit parking. Downtown has its functions: dining, shopping, housing, entertainment- but it also has its purpose, and that purpose is to bring the community together. If downtown no longer provides any functions, it can no longer serve its purpose. The gathering space that downtown offers is absolutely critical to the health of a community and people will not use the downtown to gather if it doesn’t also provide those basic functions. People can also have all of these needs met by getting in their car and driving to strip malls. All of the various roles of downtown have been effectively replicated by suburbia, all but one, the most important one. Sprawl development offers all the shopping, dining, employment, and entertainment, but its purpose is to extract money from your community, not bring people together. Downtown is a public place and its purpose is to serve as the heart of the community. No privately owned place can ever replicate this function, nor should it. When we shift all of our commerce, jobs, housing and entertainment to the edge of a city, we also take away the one place that connects everyone to their city. We take away the place where they feel a sense of attachment and the place that fosters friendships. There are a million places that can meet a person’s dining and shopping needs, but where do we go to meet our need to feel a part of a community or to make new friends? These needs are very much a part of the human experience and something that a city must offer if it hopes to be relevant.
It’s understandable to think the secret to running a city lies solely in the numbers. That any action that creates more investment or more jobs is a step towards success. But this approach loses site of the fact that a city is full of people and people are more than just statistics. We are emotional creatures and we will seek out things that satisfy all our needs and desires. If multiple places can provide housing and employment, people will seek out a place that can also provide a high quality of life and a sense of community. People can go anywhere to shop, but they will prioritize a place that is also fun and attractive. Expecting a city to function without a downtown is like building a home with only bedrooms; yes, you can reside there, but you cannot LIVE there.
Downtown gives a city its sense of identity. It defines a place for people. Cities don’t often use the mall on their logo. When people first visit a city, they go downtown to form their perception of that place because this is the center of town and the best reflection of what a city is and means. The downtown embodies a place as a whole and we form our opinions of an entire community based on this. The downtown is a hub of local business. Local entrepreneurs typically don’t have enough capital to afford newly built suburban space, so they open downtown. Downtown is a hub of local ownership as well. Suburbia is generally developed by large national firms, to where the buildings downtown are owned locally and keep money in the community. Downtown is also our strongest connection to our city. It is where we experience a sense of community and connects us to our place. If we no longer have a public place to gather, people will no longer gather and a city will stop being a
community. The problem with this is that a certain percentage of people are going to leave to seek out a home that is also a community. Each and every one of those departures is a significant loss to a city and likely cannot be replaced.
What I realized that day as we walked around that empty and sad downtown, was that not only was there a significant financial impact that stemmed from the decisions made around the downtown, but there was an even greater cost. The center of the community is the place that fosters a sense of belonging and identity. It is the place where people establish and build relationships. It is the place where people experience an emotional connection. It is the place where a sense of community exists. Of all the things a vibrant downtown provides a city, the most important roll is in providing a place where people develop a sense of connection to their community. Because if people don’t feel connected to your city, what keeps them from leaving?
*Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog, if you found the information useful, I do hope you will consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues.
– Jeff Siegler