Katie on Downtown Revitalization

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One of my favourite planning anecdotes is that the inventor of the modern shopping mall ended up despising his invention. In the wake of the suburban boom, Victor Gruen saw a need for a safe and engaging place that was not one’s work or home, where participation and interaction could thrive. The mall was a hub for culture, entertainment, and commerce. It was an exciting and lively idea, especially post-war. As malls began to pop up all over the country, Gruen grew to hate what his invention had manifested into. Shopping malls have resulted in disconnected cities and have contributed to suburban sprawl; a detriment to social activity and to the environment.

Think about your city, especially if it is a smaller city of less than 100 000. If you have a mall, where is it located? It is probably located near your highway. Why is that? What do you think it’s doing to your city? Compare your mall to your city’s downtown. Can you name ten businesses located in your downtown? You can very likely name ten businesses located in your mall.

If you were driving down the highway and got off an exit to a city, you would very easily find its mall. You might shop, and maybe you would get some food, and you would want to be on your way. There is no purpose for you to continue into the city, you have done what you needed to do at the mall, and the highway is so conveniently placed that you feel welcome to leave. Hidden in the shadow of the city’s mall is its downtown, forgotten especially by tourists and often only supported by inner-city dwellers.

The disconnect that the mall has created between itself and its city has negatively impacted local economies, small businesses, and has picked at the social activity of a city over the decades of the mall’s existence. Without a primary focus on the city’s heart and core, the city slowly dies! Its life is found in the outer suburbs that thrive off of the malls and vice versa.

So what do we do about this disconnect and deterioration? Downtown revitalization has been the answer to this issue to cities across North America, and for good reason. So many cities have been able to start the process of reversing the negative effects of the mall’s existence through downtown revitalization.

What is downtown revitalization? Well, what isn’t it? When you think of those words, you may think of loud construction, but it isn’t always so disruptive. A primary non-physical aspect of downtown revitalization involves better marketing strategies – for example, consider London’s Get Down! campaign that took advantage of this age’s social media boom and put their downtown in the spotlight. Marketing strategies such as this are often only part of a much more involved strategy that aims at re-energizing downtowns.

Cities invest millions in their downtown cores. Belleville has just completed Phase 2 of its downtown revitalization process, having polished off a major commercial section of the main downtown street, Front Street. As a part of the Belleville Downtown Improvement Area during the summer, I was in the front seat for the bulk of it. After a major facelift for Belleville’s downtown, it is a much more welcoming place to be. Aesthetics play a major part in city planning, as it’s so primary to one’s perception. With newer and more welcoming city infrastructure, more people and activities are accommodated. Downtown revitalization is also an excellent tool for keeping cities up to date and with the times. For example, more people are turning to bikes than cars – especially millennials – and Belleville’s new Front Street is now a safer place for cyclists.

If cities spend millions on their downtown centres, what comes out of it? The refocus on downtowns stresses the importance of the local economy and of communities that are socially active and invested. In many cities, downtown revitalization takes on a new urbanist form where living accommodations are mixed with cultural hubs and local stores. This puts an emphasis on walkable neighbourhoods and encourages social activity and welcoming environments.

But why is downtown revitalization relevant? Are cities better with these new urbanist motifs unfolding in their downtowns? What difference does it make? This brings us back to the shopping mall. First consider a social, walkable, accessible downtown with a mix of transportation – cyclists, pedestrians, cars, public transit – with business owners and residents who naturally encourage and support each other as part of a community. Compare this to a hollow shopping mall placed near a busy highway and surrounded by a sea of pavement and cars, cradling big name stores that do not rely on excellent customer service to keep their business running. This mall is completely disconnected from the outside world. What is a more interesting and engaging environment between these two options? Downtown revitalization is happening to compete with the convenience of malls and to bring people back to not just the city, but to the heart of the city.

Interestingly enough, malls are becoming more desolate as online shopping becomes a bigger and even more convenient trend for people all across the world. North American malls are beginning their decline, and there are more and more malls – especially in the United States – that are becoming hollow holes of what once was a booming feature in the suburban glory of the 50s going forward. So while downtown revitalization is currently competing with what energy malls are left exerting, it is also beginning a huge competition with the new age of purchasing something from the comfort of your bed and having it arrive at your house in less than 48 hours. Is it realistic for downtowns to compete with this advancement of technology? What will cities become as we turn to online interfaces for almost every social interaction? Will downtowns – or even cities – become obsolete the further into the future we go? Or will there always be insurmountable value in seeing a friendly face as we open a local store’s door?

You can look back at past experiences to consider how attached you are to your city and to your city’s downtown. You can also anticipate your involvement in your city as technologically evolves around it. I think I will always appreciate downtowns as a social hub of interaction and interest, and being able to interact with a friendly face in indoor and outdoor settings. Downtown revitalization is a process that cities must take to remain competitive in today’s technological atmosphere, but it’s up to how the public reacts that would ultimately determine whether or not the revitalization was worth the investment. So ask yourself, do you appreciate malls, computer screens, or downtowns as your go-to avenue of social interaction? What are the social consequences of your choice? How does this choice affect your city?

Some interesting links to ponder:

The Father of the American Shopping Mall Hated what he Created

Kitchener’s Revitalization Success

Strategies for Downtown Transformation

Get Down! Downtown London

Belleville’s Phase 2 is Complete

 

 

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