Editor's Note: This week we are lucky to have our friend and colleague Andrea Brown as our guest blogger. Andrea is Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Planning and a member of the Michigan Main Street Advisory Committee.
Andrea Brown, AICP
Michigan Association of Planning
Community planners have long recognized that great places do not happen by accident, but in fact are carefully orchestrated and designed to include some common elements that have universal appeal. Interestingly, the most compelling of these are almost always present in what is considered a “traditional” downtown, a city center that has organically evolved over many generations, and likely was established at a time when compact, human-scale development, mixed uses, and independently owned businesses were the norm. While early downtown evolution was dictated by proximity to transportation routes, natural resources, and opportunities to trade, they often grew into regional centers for business, service, housing, cultural amenities and community gathering places.
For many years, before suburban investment diluted the richness of many downtowns, central cities were where commerce was found, where the majority of the population lived, and where people congregated for cultural enrichment. Now, although assets are more dispersed regionally, it is clear that the health of downtowns within a city and within a region is more important than ever.
Today, characteristics of the healthiest most vibrant downtowns include things like mixed uses; compact and dense development, where buildings sit cheek by jowl creating an aura of curiosity and energy; mixed income neighborhoods that provide a variety of housing options; shops and businesses that open on to sidewalks, not parking lots; on street parking that slows traffic providing drivers the chance to amble through town; busy sidewalks that are safe and pedestrian friendly; public spaces and places to congregate; cultural amenities and public art; restaurants and entertainment; and venues for entrepreneurs to gather, share and grow; a “sense of place”, or that essential character of an area that inspires, attracts, draws near.
While interest in downtown revitalization has for decades remained a central focus of community planners and local leaders, its relevance has increased even more in recent years as we better understand the need to create sustainable communities. Existing downtowns, at their very core, epitomize sustainability. Getting the most out of prior investments in infrastructure and development – including not just streets and sidewalks and pipes, but public buildings like city halls and courthouses, libraries and schools, streetlights and street furniture – can save government billions in future expenditures, and reemphasize the characteristics that can be found only in a downtown that has evolved organically.
We know that the meaning and purpose experienced in a traditional downtown resonates with many who wish to experience city life; developers in recent decades sought to replicate those very characteristics that can only evolve organically. Call it neo traditional planning, new urbanism, or traditional neighborhood design, by any other name it is, at its essence, a traditional downtown but one sited far from existing infrastructure. So why not resist the urge to develop our green fields and farmland, and instead advance state and local policies that emphasize our existing downtowns, that reinvest in places where there is already a “there” there.
Community planning plays a key role in attaining sustainable communities that focus on revitalizing and investing in our traditional downtowns, and can drive the policy conversations and decisions that can help make it happen. There is a direct connection between focusing our limited resources in already developed areas, especially downtowns, policies and practices that reduce vehicular trips, improve air quality, create a housing diversity that accommodates all residents of a community from service workers to executives, and development that encourages dense, mixed land uses. In fact, downtowns are already mostly sustainable, and inherently, by their very nature, are advancing sustainability principles.
Although traditional downtowns may have evolved over time, protecting the nature and character of a community’s center takes vision and intention, and a commitment by a community’s leadership – local government, the business community, and residents - to protect and preserve those characteristics that are once again in vogue. Let’s take a look at some of the ways the community planning process can refocus local policies and resources toward downtown revitalization.
Master Plan Process. When communities create a vision for the future, make sure that you include community aspirations for a healthy and vital downtown. Clearly articulate that your community values downtown revitalization as a priority for your city or town.
Quality Community Design. Whether your downtown is protected by a historic district, or design standards, or through innovative techniques like Form Based Codes, you can control the aesthetics and “look” of your community by adopting measures that protect local heritage and character.
Mixed Uses. Traditional zoning evolved to separate the adverse affects of heavy industrial uses on residential properties. Today, due to more stringent environmental laws and a greater understanding of the unforeseen consequences of separating land uses – driving everywhere we go, vanishing farmland and open space, landscapes that are bland and “the same”, we are rewriting our zoning ordinances to encourage a mix of land uses that creates a more diverse, interesting and accessible community.
Create dense, compact environments that encourage walking from place to place
Reevaluating Density. For years the American dream was to own an acre in the country. We know now how damaging this is to farmland, natural features, and the sustainability of our downtowns. We are now creating more dense, compact environments that encourage transportation alternatives, that create efficiencies with infrastructure, that allow us, because of compact, closer in development, to walk, bike or bus from place to place. Changes to your zoning codes can encourage density in your downtown.
Incentives for investing in downtown. Adopt policies and implement programs that target new investment in your traditional or historic downtown. Historic tax credits, brownfield tax credits, establish a Downtown Development Authority (DDA), create and adopt a tax increment finance plan. The possibilities are endless… but create the incentives that attract development dollars.
Downtowns are socially and economically important to cities. A vital downtown is central to a community’s health and prosperity, and a healthy downtown also means a healthy tax base. There is much a community can to do encourage a regulatory and planning environment that supports the advancement of quality downtowns that attract business, residents and visitors.
And community planners play a key role in advancing the policies and procedures – by creating comprehensive planning environment that embrace downtown and through modernizing zoning codes and other regulatory mechanisms that result in well designed, connected, exciting city experience.