Before I start venting my spleen over the goings on out there, I thought it best to warm up with some general concepts to set the stage. For the sake of these posts I am broadly defining urban design as how the public realm looks and feels, and how it is constructed and maintained. For the uninitiated who want more you can find a generic description with links to prominent authors in the field here.
Downtown is important to our entire community, whether you live here or not, and regardless of if one ever comes here to work or play. It is the center of our community, and its wellbeing affects the wellbeing of the region. I will not belabor the statistics (you can find them here, here, and here) but Downtown’s daytime population is 50,000- almost a third of the city’s population. Annually, over 3 million visitors come to downtown and drop almost $690 million. The Community Research Council found that on a per square mile basis the Downtown census tract had an assessed value of nearly four times the value of the next highest census tract.

As sexy as stats about the lucre may be, the true importance of downtown can’t be measured in Benjamins. Downtown has become the symbol of (if not the reason for) the city’s comeback from “Most Polluted City in the Country” to poster child of civic renaissance. It is a place where rich, poor and middle class live. It is the place where a third of us work. It is the place our friends and family gather for any number of celebrations, parades, festivals and fetes. It is the city’s living room. Downtowns are special places. Because they are special, different rules apply. That understanding has been self-evident for most of human history, but over the past half-century we have managed to forget somehow.

When downtown was originally built, the lack of widespread motorized transportation meant that buildings and activities needed to occur close to one another for the obvious reason of pedestrian circulation. Over time, virtually every parcel and building downtown was developed with an eye toward permanence and quality due to the relative scarcity of land close to the center. Out of necessity uses were mixed within blocks and within buildings. Development was vertical to accommodate as much activity as possible within that relatively small footprint.

From a stylistic standpoint, the traditions of how cities were built had been learned incrementally over the course of centuries, and based on those traditions most architecture respected the context in which was sited. Up until the last half of the 20th century there seemed to exist a sense of the common good as it related to how these places were built. The character and quality of the building, and in turn that of the public realm it defined, mattered.

In contrast a sub-urb is a collection of standardized, but unrelated elements; streets are strictly for cars, each land use is segregated, and buildings relate only to themselves. Because of their auto-centric nature, proximity and scarcity do not factor and these places “sprawl”. We all know that if you’ve seen one sub-urb you’ve seen them all. Same McDonalds, same Home Depot, same Applebees, same 13’ asphalt travel lane, same massive parking lot. Except for our own little pieces of the pie, most people don’t really give a damn the ‘burbs themselves. That makes sense, these “places” are brand new and weren’t designed for people anyway.

The places that people do care about are unique in some way. There is some element of environment or character that makes that place unlike any other- that’s what makes it special and worthy of care. When we transplant sub-urban (read: generic) things into a downtown, they destroy the character that makes that downtown unique. The horizontal, single-use, single-story nature of a building, the excessive width of a travel lane, and mandated superfluous parking requirements waste the scarce land resource that defines a downtown.

In a very real way, our city’s deference to sub-urban standards will bastardize downtown. Scarcity, density and uniqueness are in the DNA of downtown, these are the very elements that sub-urban standards attack. If land is continually developed into one-story buildings with large setbacks, what happens? If all of the streets downtown are widened to suburban standards, what happens? If the design of new buildings is no different from those out at Hamilton Place, what happens? If our scarce downtown land is dedicated to excessively sized surface parking lots, what happens? If we continue along those paths, then downtown ceases to exist and we are left with a sub-urb in its stead.

Thankfully, there is inertia at work that will preclude the total sub-urbanization of downtown. However, the argument is sound. Every Applebees, every Buffalo Wild Wings, every dim requirement that comes of the traffic engineers office degrades the jewel of a downtown that many have worked so hard to restore. And make no mistake, there comes a tipping point. While downtown may never be fully sub-urbanized, every incremental step we take in that direction makes this a significantly less special place. In fact, there is a fate worse than the sub-urbs, just ask Pigeon Forge or Panama City…uh, on second thought please don’t…

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