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Thriving Downtowns

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Posted (edited)

I'm curious as to what people think about the importance of thriving downtowns, especially in the South. Other than Atlanta and to an extent New Orleans I have not seen a whole lot of really thriving downtowns (lots of people walking, street performers, museums or cultural events within close proximity) in the South.

Granted I might be thinking more of walkable than thriving, but to me I think those two are almost interchangable. At first, I thought maybe it is the heat and humidity especially in the summer. But Portland, Maine, Boston, New York, and Providence, RI have winters whose colds are equivalent to the South's hots, and their downtowns remain walkable and alive in the winter. Even cities that I have seen with fairly walkable downtowns (Birmingham comes to mind) do not seem to have especially thriving scenes.

Now I know that a lot of places have thriving neighborhoods outside of the cities' cores, and I also know that a lack of public transportation infrastructure may hurt downtowns' growth. As well as the fact that a lot of cities in the South are far reaching (land wise). In addition, for whatever reason, there are a lot of drivers in the south so there is a need parking which many downtowns may not have. So I guess what I am asking is just what the topic description reads: Are thriving downtowns important to urban areas or are they only an added bonus?

Edited by nowyano

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Posted

I'm curious as to what people think about the importance of thriving downtowns, especially in the South. Other than Atlanta and to an extent New Orleans I have not seen a whole lot of really thriving downtowns (lots of people walking, street performers, museums or cultural events within close proximity) in the South.

Interesting. I love Atlanta to death, and while its downtown isn't anywhere near dead, it also doesn't top my list of thriving downtowns in the South. I'd probably put New Orleans at the top of the list and follow up with Charleston and Savannah. Cities like Austin, Nashville, and Charlotte also do quite well for themselves. Downtowns that have undergone remarkable transformations within the past several years, like Greenville, SC and Chattanooga, are worthy of mention also. You've also got those one-of-kind cities like Asheville and the very popular South Beach neighborhood of Miami Beach.

So I guess what I am asking is just what the topic description reads: Are thriving downtowns important to urban areas or are they only an added bonus?

Important in what way? Economically? In a quality of life way? Culturally? I'd say yes to all of the above.

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I believe that healthy downtowns are very important for cities. As "where to live" trends change (the demand for urban housing is increasing every year) cities are going to need healthy walkable vibrant downtowns. People want interesting places to live. The city of the future needs to have a mix of urban and suburban areas.

Lets face it, suburban sprawl isn't going anywhere, especially in the south. There will always be someone that wants a half acre lot and live behind a gate. But, Cities and counties need to help facilitate and encourage growth in their downtown areas while also promoting green field new urbanism. Green field new urbansim will help limit land consumption, new and upkeep infrastructure costs, city or county services costs (trash, police and fire protection), and energy costs.

If cities don

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Important in what way? Economically? In a quality of life way? Culturally? I'd say yes to all of the above.

I guess all of the above. The reason I ask is because I have recently moved back around Montgomery, AL and the downtown is going through a huge resurgence and A LOT of people seem to be complaining saying that more focus should be on the outskirts, and it is a waste of money.

Lets face it, suburban sprawl isn't going anywhere, especially in the south.

I think part of my question has to do with this. In the northeast, there is sprawl but nothing like I've seen in Atlanta, Montgomery, and Birmingham. Why does it seem like people want to put all their efforts into the continuing sprawl and not into downtowns?

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II think part of my question has to do with this. In the northeast, there is sprawl but nothing like I've seen in Atlanta, Montgomery, and Birmingham. Why does it seem like people want to put all their efforts into the continuing sprawl and not into downtowns?

I think that's the real question.

I grew up in Massachusetts, where you move from one town to the next without any dead space in between borders. There is no real "unincorporated" areas such as you would find in the South. And that's just simple population density around older established cities like Boston or New York or Hartford etc. Every bit of land is accounted for and governed either by the incorporated city, or by the incorporated town (which after hundreds of years has come to act as a smaller satellite city). You won't find suburban annexation to build subdivisions in the "outskirts" - simply because there are not as many outskirts to be annexed. Not saying you won't find subdivisions, but the land use is different.

To go back to the point about the importance of a lively downtown: in my opinion, the cities of the northeast as magnets to the satellite towns. The satellite towns exist because they are in orbit around the major city, and so the relationship of the people in those satellite towns is magnetic to the city. I've noticed in the South, that the cities do not have such a magnetic pull. Here in Charlotte, for instance, residents of Waxhaw might only go to Charlotte every once and a while for a NBA or NFL game. But they would never just go there and "hang out," when they have everything they need a want in the suburbs (movies, schools, shopping, dining, etc). I assume even the same could be said about Buckheads relationship with Atlanta. So instead of having one large magnetic city, you have many small towns with very little regional relationship. Ultimately, I think this is why so much retail has failed in this economy, and maybe even why we are such a gluttonous society. There are too many Targets and Walmarts convenient to everyone. So no one needs to go to Belk in Downtown Charlotte anymore - everyone stays in their town and never grows as a society.

Wow. Didn't mean to rant.

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Here in Charlotte, for instance, residents of Waxhaw might only go to Charlotte every once and a while for a NBA or NFL game. But they would never just go there and "hang out," when they have everything they need a want in the suburbs (movies, schools, shopping, dining, etc). I assume even the same could be said about Buckheads relationship with Atlanta.

Buckhead is part of the actual city of Atlanta, not a suburb (even though the business district essentially functions as an edge city). Perimeter or Cumberland would be appropriate examples, though, since they are edge cities outside of the city.

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I'd put Charleston and Asheville at the top of the list of thriving downtowns in the South. Just because a downtown has skyscrapers doesn't mean it's thriving. I'm sure that's been discussed ad nauseam on this forum and on similar forums though.

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I'd also put Greenville, SC at the top of the list of thriving downtowns  Within the last few years, it's gotten (or will be getting) lots of new condos, hotels, entertainment venues and retail (Brooks Brothers, Anthropologie, Orvis and more), plus more office space.  It also has a beautiful park (Falls Park) that's packed on weekends.

 

Downtown certainly moves Greenville up from being a so-so mid-tier Southern city (which it was when I was growing up) to being a really neat, appealing place to be (which is what it is now).

So I'd say that a thriving downtown is key to a city.

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Good to see Birmingham making significant strides in their downtown these days...it's a pretty impressive turnaround happening there.

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It seems the mid-size cities understand what it takes to grow, and a large part of that is by creating a thriving downtown. I'm unsure whether it's the lack of extreme politics that allow them to organically grow their city, but it's interesting to look at. 

 

Charleston and Savannah will always be the cities to look at in terms of relating density and life (thriving activity) together. Asheville would be the mountain equivalent, in my opinion. All three are islands in and of themselves giving to organic, unique growth and culture. One could toss Knoxville up there, but sprawl isn't working in the favor of the city; it almost is giving the city to the college kids entirely (I can speak from my years there). 

 

I know Pensacola is currently working hard - think Chattanooga mid-80's onward with their renaissance - at the moment, and could easily climb the list. I don't normally consider Florida in these equations, but I guess I can make an exception for the panhandle, especially one so close to AL. 

 

Chattanooga and Greenville would top my list for thriving, mid-size cities showing the larger ones how to get it done. Columbia is currently coming together, and the baseball neighborhood junction should help in the efforts (strangely enough). I see Mobile as a contender as well. I do not know enough about North Carolina cities to really speak on them, but I have heard of Greensboro and Winston-Salem making themselves lively as of late. Athens and Gainesville are both dense and lively, but because of their smaller size and large attribution to a university economy, I wouldn't consider them so far as the others. They are more, in my eyes, of a larger Main St with heavy residential population and activity. Huntsville is a contender, but its population is much older; we'll see where it goes.

 

To larger cities who have always had "thriving" downtowns, I can speak for New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville. Atlanta is thriving, in parts, but its downtown is not the most cohesive. Many of the thriving, pedestrian parts are in the neighborhoods surrounding. The same is with Nashville, but it has always traditionally had a pretty dense downtown full of life (think 1st Ave, the Arcade, Broadway, Printer's Alley). Its neighborhoods are also bustling with life and quickly becoming more dense, which explains the bubble it currently is growing, I'm sure. Charlotte, from my understanding, is similar to Nashville with having both robust neighborhoods and a downtown scene, but I'm not sure how contiguous it is. 

 

To my point, the mid-size cities are correlating the back-to-downtown growth trend, almost spearheading it. Nashville has adopted a pedestrian river bridge from Chattanooga, for example, and many cities travel to both Chattanooga and Greeneville to look towards what is working for them. That's a huge deal. To the other side point in this topic, while the Southeast (I'm leaving it to TN, Carolinas, GA, AL, pan-FL) is famously full of sprawl, it has always had an under-recognized dense core. Birmingham, a city of sprawl, has a pretty interesting nightlife. Even Little Rock arguably has a great life downtown (though it's split with a suburb city). It just took some smaller cities to show the bigger ones how to get it done.

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