Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Downtown: A place for people or cars?

"The downtown has taken on a mythical quality in our minds, a public good which belongs to the community at large."

A local community recently embarked on a quest to plan for the future and as the newspaper reports there is no shortage of good ideas. People unanimously agree that the downtown needs restaurants and entertainment, that the downtown is an underutilized asset that needs to be a “destination”. In that word, the truth is revealed for a destination is a place that will attract travelers (or more appropriately, the credit cards contained within their wallets) from far and wide. As I read through the coverage I struggle to connect the community’s future prosperity with the proposed “improvements” and I wonder just how the addition of a theme park ride will bring waves of cash flush tourists? I’m left with the feeling that the goal is for the downtown to become a theme park or roadside attraction, something on par with Wall Drug. It’s apparent that the focus is on improving the travelers, tourists, and customers experience with a strategy designed not to make this a better place for it’s residents but for visitors. That in itself seems absurd for the interstate is a system built for speed and often populated with tired people who are in a hurry to get home and whose primary motivation to exit the interstate is due to the fact that they are dangerously close to losing control of their bladder. There is no denying that the community needs visitors and their money, so the more of them and the fatter the wallets the better.

While I am skeptical of the plan, the attention given to this subject reiterates the importance of the downtown. Its structures and streetscapes are a canvas upon which our collective aspirations and expectations are projected. The downtown has taken on a mythical quality in our minds, a public good which belongs to the community at large. Just as citizens expect that Fire Truck to say "Anywhere, USA" and the choo-choo to come rolling down the tracks, they often expect that the downtown should be a "vibrant" center of activity complete with people, activities, parades, diners, bars, museums, and hole in the wall places that only us locals can truly appreciate.

In contrast to the approach above, an alternative would be to build a great place for the residents and stakeholders who populate the downtown on a daily basis. This would start with creating an environment ripe for entrepreneurial development and basing it on the characteristics of the communities which draw people from coast to coast without the presence of an oversized carnival ride. The characteristics of these places which stand out, once you get past the glamour of artisanal dining and boutique shopping, is an environment built to the human scale. There are alleys, there are doors, there are sidewalks, things are close. I’m in an outdoor space, but it might be more akin to a well decorated room. The roadways are narrow as opposed to wide, yet I still feel safe strolling along. The curbs are intact not having been crushed by seasons of repeated contact with oversized trucks whose turning radius is incompatible with pedestrian friendly intersections. Even more pleasing is lack of windswept parking lots adorned with the solitary shopping cart ambling about in a sea of cigarette butts afloat on the wind.

It is becoming apparent, we can’t regulate or legislate the establishments for which we collectively yearn into existence, they are more connected to the economics of demand than to the sphere of government regulation. However, while pedestrian lighting, setbacks, and design standards don’t sound as exciting, these are the type of things which a community has the ability to shape and regulate. These are things that create an environment for people, who incidentally enough are the ones we must count on to bring their dreams to fruition. The challenge is to look past the outcomes and create a space where there will be so many people living, working, sleeping, eating, and farting about that entrepreneurs resort to using their own creativity, turning run down and underutilized spaces into the quirky, hip, and modern amenities for which other cities are famous. 

As depicted in the above picture, there is quote from Jane Jacobs above my desk at work. It's size, is no indication of it's importance. Someone else had quoted it in an article I read several months ago and it struck a chord with me. It's something I continue to ponder, a few simple words which encompass many of my thoughts but had managed to elude me for years. My interpretation, it's meaning changes depending on the environment, the atmosphere, and the task at hand. At times I find it to be narrowly focused on people, while I've also found it applicable to more comprehensive discussions regarding culture, behavior, auto-dependency, and economics.

In that quote may lie the solution that many communities are seeking. Rather than answer the age old question of “what is there to do?”, just create a place to live. A great place to live where people feel comfortable, stimulated, engaged, connected to their surroundings and the environment. Instead of creating faux spaces, allow people to live and work in proximity to each other, building off a natural synergy. This type of approach generates and retains both local value and revenues, rather than relying on the patterns of interstate travel. In summation, the rich environment which attracts people, residents, and a sense of ownership is a triumph not of the automobile but of simple foot traffic.