urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

How to identify your downtown

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Downtown: in or to the business or central part of a city

Having traveled recently around the Midwest this summer to towns and cities of varying sizes, it’s struck me how “downtown,” a seemingly basic concept — that dictionary entry seems pretty simple — and lexical item coined in America, actually encompasses such a variety of built areas in this country.

It seems to me that there are three basic built forms when we talk about “downtown.” To use my completely unscientific sobriquets, there’s the Big City, a mixed-use vibrant quarter in large metropolises; the Government Center, an area made-up largely of public-sector buildings that empties out after hours, often in midsize cities; and Ye Olde Townes, a boutique-y and often self-consciously quaint district found in suburbs and small towns.

These are all explicitly American cities. Public-private transportation subsidies, federal highway funding, Americans’ tendency to spread, cultural valuations of small towns and intense nineteenth-century commercial centralization have all contributed to form these downtowns we see today.

Downtown Chicago

The Big City

A tall set of skyscrapers, the Big City boasts healthy commercial activity in both the private and public sectors; aside from white-collar office jobs, retail presence continues to flourish, perhaps in the form of an outdoor mall but often in the form of middle- to high-end shopping streets. The share of metropolitan office space is relatively high by American standards. Civic buildings and museums tend to cluster here, although they may be in a “museum” or “civic quarter” separate from the rest of the city. Pedestrians can be seen on the street, although numbers are markedly down on nights and weekends.

These are the most likely kinds of downtowns to be the hubs or to be well-served by transit systems. If intercity rail services the city, a somewhat prominent rail station exists, although relocations and closures may mean that the rail station is on the edge of the commercial district. In places with minimum parking requirements — essentially, all cities in the US — if there is a relaxation or smaller amount of required parking, it will be here.

These types of downtowns also tend to have some pretty bad traffic congestion, as the density and size inherent in large-scale retail and office buildings tend to lend themselves to crowded conditions.

Government Center

I know this is the name given to the collection of civic buildings in Boston, which in most other respects boasts a Big City-type downtown, but to my mind the awful Government Center is a good example of this kind of “downtown.” Usually ringed by a set of highways, Government Center will be populated nearly exclusively by civic and governmental buildings. There may be some private-sector headquarters, but most corporate offices will have moved out to the suburbs a long time ago. Retail is limited to convenience stores and lunch joints, nearly none of which will be open after hours or on weekends. Government Centers also tend to play host to large conference centers that don’t interface well at all with the surrounding streetscape. There is relatively little residential life here.

Transportation-wise, this is typically marked by an oversupply of parking garages and parking lots. Cities with stark Government Centers to  If the city has a transit system, which is probably an underfunded, underscheduled system of buses, nearly all the routes probably serve the downtown. If the system is relatively well-designed, there may be a hub where buses – pulsed if you’re lucky – come in.

Downtown Traverse City

Ye Olde Towne

I was inspired to put this post together when I went on a visit to downtown Naperville sponsored by the Chaddick Institute — by nearly all measures, downtown Naperville is one of the more successful downtowns out there. The thing that struck me, that really prompted this post, was the description of downtown Naperville as a “scoop” — it is made up almost entirely of buildings no taller than three stories. If you want real height, and corporate headquarters in Naperville, you’ll have to drive by the Interstate 88 corridor, where a slew of generic-looking corporate buildings cluster by the highway.

Ye Olde Townes tend to boast boutique- and independent-type retailers almost exclusively, such as antique stores, art galleries, boutique clothing shops, stationery stores, ice cream and dessert parlors and high-end restaurants. These stores are generally closely clustered together, fronting onto the sidewalk. There is often angled parking, but if not there is almost certainly on-street curb parking on the main commercial streets.

The biggest difference between Ye Olde Townes and the other two kinds of downtowns is the marked absence of large-scale office buildings. Some small real-estate offices and boutique law firms may be found downtown, but any real large-scale offices will be found in corporate office parks, often on the outskirts of town. In a way, Ye Olde Townes are the diametric opposites of Government Centers in that they often contain nothing but retail, whereas Government Centers often contain no retail at all.

Summing up

These are of course just archetypes. No one single downtown district adheres completely to these descriptions — Los Angeles and Washington, to take two cities on either coast, don’t really fit into any of these — and the multiplicity of cities and towns across the States means that there is wide variation in urban form. It’s a small trend, but I think we’re also starting to see some downtown areas of large cities become Ye Olde Towne-type downtowns, with residential condo living and high-end stores and shops, but a small share of corporate office space overall.

Still, I think it’s valuable to think about the really different forms we associate with “downtown.” Of course, “cities” themselves vary greatly in form — Mumbai, Dallas and London are pretty different — but I think we’re a little more cognizant of the differences between cities as a whole. “Downtown” is a seemingly cohesive idea on the surface, but not so much underneath.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 14, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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