Placemaking Matters in Creating Resilient Downtowns
By: Michael Burayidi, Ph.D.
There is a shift in thinking in downtown redevelopment. Rather than simply revitalizing downtowns, the new thinking is to make downtowns resilient. Revitalization is a reactive strategy and seeks primarily to fix current downtown problems. Revitalization programs would target blight removal, decreasing crime rates, or improving property values. The goal of revitalization is thus to restore the downtown to its previous state.
A downtown resilience strategy takes a longer term vision in crafting strategies for the redevelopment of the downtown. Yes, the goal includes fixing current problems of downtowns but most importantly the strategy is to position downtowns to withstand unexpected calamities. In the short term downtowns are impacted by globalization, suburbanization, economic recessions, and deindustrialization. In the long term, downtowns have to be developed with a mind to helping them take advantage of demographic shifts, and to help them withstand climate change, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that disrupt the functioning of the downtown. Through resilience planning downtowns are redeveloped with the ability to bounce back from such catastrophic events. It is this new thinking that is rendering the traditional Main Street redevelopment approach obsolete. It isn’t that the four-point approach to main street redevelopment is not relevant it is that the approach is no longer adequate to help downtowns weather volatility and unpredictability.
Over the period of four years, I researched and identified fourteen communities across the U. S. that are taking innovative approaches to make their downtowns resilient. These cities ranged from Middletown, CT, Greenville, SC, and Hendersonville, NC in the east through Holland, MI and Mansfield, OH in the Midwest to Santa Barbara, CA, Chico, CA, and Fort Collins, CO in the west. I visited and talked to civic leaders and downtown managers to find out the innovative approaches they are implementing to insulate their downtowns from economic and natural turbulence and to make them resilient. The research culminated in my new book, Resilient downtowns: A new approach to revitalizing small and medium size downtowns, that is now available for purchase from amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Resilient-Downtowns-Approach-Revitalizing-Medium-ity/dp/0415827663/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370870546&sr=8-1&keywords=resilient+downtowns.
While I encourage you to purchase and read the entire book for details the following are snippets of my major findings. Most of the cities I researched are no longer wedded to the Main Street four-point approach of commercial revitalization. These cities have adopted strategies that extend beyond the four-point approach to include measures to revitalize their downtown and near downtown residential neighborhoods, not just Main Street. These cities have also succeeded in creating mixed use quality places that are attractive and inviting to young professionals and nontraditional families. They’ve also capitalized on their heritage to boost tourism by linking historic preservation to tourism promotion. Most importantly, these cities have built the institutional capacity to respond quickly to distress. For us planners, it is important to note that quality design and place-making are hallmarks to creating resilience in their downtowns. Because of the priority given to placemaking the cities’ downtowns continued to be desirable locations for business and the creative class even in times of recession.