A colleague reached out this morning and asked if I had ever written anything about permitted first floor uses in a downtown. I responded that I had not, but hey, the day is young.
I love a good analogy. I will beat an analogy to death. When it comes to cities, we don’t have much guidance, so I look to a good analogy to help make some sense of it all. Typically there is something else we can relate to that will help make more sense of our cities. I will get to this analogy later, but first things first.
So, the question is, should someone be allowed to live in on the first floor in the downtown. Simple answer, nope.
Thank you for attending my TED Talk.
Hang on. I suppose my colleague deserves a more thoughtful answer.
No, it would be unwise for a city to permit someone to use the first floor of a downtown building as a residence. Nor should it be used as storage, or a church, or a karate shop or any of the other ridiculous things that occupy these spaces.
Of course, it is within a city’s purview to do just that, and plenty of cities do, but it’s a dumb idea never-the-less. As it is always worth pointing out, a city must use the tools it has available to try and create the outcomes it believes will benefit the community as a whole. How people are permitted to use their property is just such an example.
Now before you pull out your “don’t tread on me flag” and start talking about your freedoms, I feel compelled to point out that as long as you decide to live amongst other people, you agree to participate in the social contract. If you choose to be part of society, you are obligated to follow certain rules that your society deems necessary to hold this whole thing together. If you don’t like it, please feel free to relocate to the side of a glacier in Alaska and behave however you like. For the rest of us, we agree that laws and regulations are necessary guardrails we must adopt to live in a functioning society. As a community, we decide what is and isn’t allowed in order to protect every individual in the community. This is nothing new, society has operated this way for a few years now. The Code of Hammurabi was written between 1792 BC and 1758 BC, so we have had ample time to adjust.
So let’s put the whole, “don’t tell me what to do” aside. Now, let’s discuss why a city is wise to make choices about what uses are and are not allowed. Answer the following; would you like to live next to a brothel, a slaughterhouse, a nightclub, a dog kennel, a sewer plant? Outside of you freaks, no, the answer is no. Going back to California in the early 1900’s, cities started adopting zoning codes to ensure certain property uses were relegated to certain areas to protect homeowners and citizens. The courts have upheld these ordinances since then.
So we all understand why a meatpacking facility might not be great next door to our house. Well why do uses downtown matter you ask? Because downtown is the central marketplace of a city. It is intended to be commercial and a city functions properly when it is allowed to remain so. Since Zeus invented cities, they have been built around a central marketplace. This gives farmers and producers and anyone with goods or services a centralized location to bring those goods and services to market. Simultaneously, it provides residents a convenient hub to acquire those goods and services. This is healthy for a city because residents need access to goods and services to remain alive and it provides residents with a common gathering place where they have a chance to interact with one another. I may not have mentioned this, but a sense of community is really really really important. People must have an opportunity to be with one another for a city to sustain any type of health.
The downtown must function as the central marketplace for a city to succeed. If the downtown stops operating as a marketplace, then all of the sudden a city stops functioning. When people have no centralized place to get goods and services, they are required to travel further to acquire them, thus taking their money out of their own community. At the same time, those social interactions that are vital for holding a community together are lost. As more people have to drive to get to the market, the city grows less walkable, less attractive, less close-knit, less lovable, and less economically self-reliant. There is a reason that every single city you love has a strong central marketplace, because that is how cities are meant to function. You don’t have to believe me, check tourism data and property values and see for yourself.
So when a city starts allowing people to use downtown first floor commercial space as storage, or churches or a residences, they begin diluting the glue that holds everyone together. This is the process of pulling apart the fabric of the community and the slow bleed out of the local economy as national chains swoop into suck up all the money the downtown used to keep. When the downtown fades in relevance, so does the appeal of the community. So does the identity of the community. So does the housing around the downtown. So does self-reliance. So does self-esteem. So does local wealth. So does the job market. So does tourism. Shall I go on?
The central marketplace of a city is too important to mess with. It must be allowed to remain in-tact and cities can and should use their municipal levers to ensure that first floor space in the downtown remains commercial. The upper floors in the downtown should be used for housing, or offices or hotels or more service based businesses. That is all well and good and accommodates everyone, but the street level space must cater to walking traffic. The ground-floor must remain a draw and must pull people in, otherwise the heart of a city begins to atrophy and the whole city declines along with it.
Do you use your living room for storage? No, why not? Do you sleep in the basement? No, wonder why? Do you poop in the kitchen? I really hope not. We have uses in our houses and we separate those uses into rooms. We understand that in separating the different uses, our houses will be more functional and facilitate the type lifestyle we choose.
We don’t store boxes in our living room, we don’t put beds in the dining room and we don’t put a home gym in the kitchen, because these are the places people convene. This is where a family spends time together, this is where we entertain company. If we changed the uses of those rooms in our house, we would no longer have a place for the family to interact. We would no longer be able to invite friends over. Our relationships would deteriorate. The family would grow apart. We would grow more isolated. Our lives would get worse. Our homes would become sad. We would become sad.
Bedrooms are for sleeping. Downtowns are for commerce. Case closed and it’s not even lunchtime.