Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Towns are cities too and urbanism isn't just about center cities

A building in Walla Walla, Washington.

In response to the Washington Post article, "Can city life be exported to the suburbs?," I think Jonathan O'Connell gets to his point at the end of the piece, that "town centers" built all at once by developers lack the fine grain and diversity that's present in traditional commercial districts, but the headline misrepresents the point, which isn't necessarily the issue of cities vs. suburbs, because cities and towns are urbanized, regardless of their location in center cities or in counties, the latter of which are termed suburbs.

While cities other than center cities, towns, and town centers and conurbations (town-like places that aren't incorporated cities, such as Bethesda or Silver Spring in Montgomery County, Maryland or Towson in Baltimore County, Maryland), are located in counties (even center cities are typically located within counties, except in Virginia and in a few places certain cities function either as integrated city-counties like Philadelphia or as cities separate from a county, such as Baltimore City vs. Baltimore County), it's not really helpful to call center cities cities and urban and everything else "suburbs" and "not urban."  See the blog entry from 2006, "It's the (urban) design (compact development, mixed-use, connected, walkable, friendly to all mobility modes) stupid!"

The point is to look at districts within cities and districts or cities or towns within counties.

Kyle Ezell in the now out-of-print book Get Urban! made the point that you didn't have to live in a city like New York to get the "urban experience," that plenty of smaller cities had those verysame ingredients in various neighborhoods.

And yes, Bethesda Row or Reston Town Center or Shirlington--each of which functions much better than Columbia Town Center in Howard County, Maryland--were created by a single developer, but for various reasons, work quite well and pose a deeply competitive threat to those center cities in this case Washington that fail to recognize and respond to the threat.

The more successful town centers are successful because they have been developed in phases with nuances as the project moves forward, hence they tend to incorporate different architectural styles and types of buildings and are not solely focused on the provision of commercial space, especially for chains but also for independent retailers and restauranteurs along with public spaces and civic assets like libraries (in Shirlington and the Rockville Town Center) plus housing.

They act the opposite of those developers that I criticized in a piece for Smart Growth News back in Dec. 2006 which is reprinted in this blog entry.

In the Main Street commercial district revitalization world, I used to make the point all the time about how "the district, not the city" needs to be the main element of study and focus.

The right unit of analysis and focus is not at the scale of an entire city such as Washington or New York City or Chicago, but the various subdistricts within communities such as Capitol Hill in DC or Seattle or Astoria, Queens or Williamsburg, Brooklyn or Andersonville, Chicago, or North Park or Little Italy in San Diego, or Hampden or Inner Harbor or Canton Square or Federal Hill or Fells Point, in Baltimore etc. at the scale of a city when you are dealing with "neighborhood" revitalization (the province of Main Street programs usually but also of business improvement districts) and their Downtowns when you deal with the Center City Downtown (the province of Business Improvement Districts and Downtown Redevelopment Authorities), and of the "Downtown" in smaller towns such as Madison, Indiana or Royal Oak, Michigan (its downtown revitalization effort puts most efforts in DC to shame) or Frederick, Maryland, etc. (either with the Main Street or the BID approach).

Communities can be studied, evaluated, compared, and improved regardless of the size, whether or not they are center cities or other conurbations, etc.

City or "urban" life has never been the exclusive province of center cities, or as an Amazon reviewer said of Ezell's book:

After reading Kyle Ezell's "Get Urban", when I drive through a city, I'll never look at it in the same way. The urban energy, the blank canvas, the garden district, all ripe for redevelopment and I want to be a part of it! I've now gained a full understanding of city life and why it can be such an exciting adventure. 

Although I will suggest that there are differences. 

Center cities tend to have a more diverse population, more dense population, more mixed use development, and more progressive politics when compared to cities, towns, and conurbations outside of the core.

Left: 8th Street, Boise, Idaho.

This past week I was out west, and let me tell you, I wish that I could have spent more time in Walla Walla, Washington--the Macy's is still on Main Street in the downtown there, and the downtown has survived two malls; Boise, Idaho--"BoDo" or Boise Downtown had a great remnant commercial district of historic buildings, a cool adjacent Cultural District anchored by 8th Street with an arts middle school, the central library, and adjacent to Julia Davis Park where the history and arts museums are located and this weekend had a great art fair much cooler than the ones I've been to around the DC-Baltimore region; and Salt Lake City's downtown has what must be one of the top 10-15 farmers markets in the US, some cool neighborhoods and business districts, is getting bike share (alas not by my firm, but we were a finalist), a streetcar, and we missed street fairs yesterday and today.

I grew up in the Detroit area and cities/towns outside of Detroit but in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties that had real town centers (downtowns) included Ferndale, Royal Oak, Dearborn, Pontiac, Birmingham, Mt. Clemens, and Grosse Pointe--even though the local Hudson's department store chain spearheaded the development of regional shopping centers (Northland, Eastland, Westland, Southland) which made it very difficult for smaller city downtowns to compete against the shopping mall.  Of course, the strengths of some of these towns were based on their importance to more distant rural communities and the agricultural economy--they served as "market towns" for outlying residents and farming communities.

It helped that for many decades, the Crowley Milner & Company department store chain focused their store locations in traditional commercial districts not malls.  Later, Jacobson's, a somewhat upscale chain based in Jackson, Michigan opened stores in the Detroit area (and Florida), helping to keep some of those outlying town downtown's viable for longer periods compared to other metropolitan areas where independent local department store chains mostly died off by the mid- 1980s (and earlier).

Downtowns in Birmingham and Grosse Pointe each still had two independent department stores into the last decade, when both Crowleys and Jacobsons finally went bankrupt (a Jacobsons had anchored campus town Ann Arbor for decades before moving to Briarwood Mall in the 1990s).

1934 Shell Road MapThe key on this 1934 road map defines cities and towns in seven different categories based on population size.  Flickr image by Jasperado.

In college, I was interested in economic geography and location theory, and how in Michigan, major cities outside of Detroit--Pontiac and Flint going north, Monroe and Toledo (in Ohio) going south, and Ann Arbor, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek going west, etc.--were each about a day's ride by horse, successively, from Detroit.

I am not so familiar with the Washington region that I know how that worked out here.  But cities like Frederick and Alexandria were created independent of Washington and have distinct downtowns still, although they are much different.  Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville are distinct conurbations--Rockville is an incorporated city while Silver Spring and Bethesda are not.

But this general pattern of development is pretty typical. And in fact, I find ULI's publications on suburban revitalization:

- Ten Principles for Developing Successful Town Centers

- Ten Principles for Reinventing America's Suburban Strips
- Ten Principles for Rethinking the Mall

- Ten Principles for Reinventing America's Suburban Business Districts

just as useful as their publication on urban revitalization:

- Ten Principles for Rebuilding Neighborhood Retail.

So just as a key on a road map distinguishes cities in terms of sizes, we must expect that urbanness isn't only defined by the largest center cities (in Greater Los Angeles there are at least 20+ cities greater than 100,000 population in addition to Los Angeles proper, ranging from Anaheim, Pasadena, and Santa Monica to Long Beach--one of the nation's top 30 cities with almost 500,000 population, and Fullerton).

So the real issue is not that "urban life" is an exportable commodity, just that "urban life" isn't only a product of "the big city" but is produced in conurbations of various sizes.

The planning concept of the urban village, wherever it may be--in the big city or a smaller town--is the operative concept.

Other resources:

- Ten Principles for Successful Development Around Transit 
- City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village | David Sucher
- many communities use an urban village concept for land use planning including Seattle, Bellingham, Washington, San Jose, California, and Fort Worth, Texas
- "Getting a head start with Urban Village planning in San Jose," Greenbelt Alliance, Maryland

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