The Columbus Circle fountain, in New York City.

Photo by Billy Hathorn / CC BY 3.0

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Lessons for Any Downtown

How smaller interventions can reactivate, energize and sustain a city’s downtown.

Story by Alexander Garvin

Published on May 13, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is excerpted from “The Heart of the City: Creating Vibrant Downtowns for a New Century,” by Alexander Garvin, published by Island Press. In it, Garvin diagnoses why some downtowns have struggled while others have thrived, and he highlights the people, businesses, institutions and public agencies effecting change in downtowns across the United States. In this excerpt, he points to two essential tactics, among others, to re-energize downtowns: devoting more of the public realm to pedestrian- and bike-friendly spaces; and sustaining a healthy environment by expanding parkland and greening smaller concretized spaces.

Many 20th-century urban experts believed cities, and downtowns in particular, were obsolete. Their prescriptions for preventing them from withering away included redevelopment and reorganization in order to transform (presumably) obsolete downtowns into efficiently operating, modern districts; adding facilities designed to attract new customers whose spending would spill over into the rest of the city; or retrofitting the public realm to accommodate additional motor vehicles that would bring the goods, services, businesses, and people needed for continuing growth. However, each of these strategies was fundamentally flawed, because each one assumed that some particular end state would be the right means for achieving a properly functioning downtown.

A second group of experts, who dealt exclusively with a specific city, saw the future of downtown as a zero-sum game in which they were competing for business and people with other downtowns in the region. Their approach was to subsidize specific players directly, with tax rebates, direct grants, or below-market mortgage loans. However, if that subsidy continues in perpetuity, it cannot be a viable program for improving downtown. Rather, it is a program for purchasing, at taxpayer expense, the downtown presence of one particular set of residents, retailers, businesses, and activities that are deemed worthy of receiving subsidies.

The Kinder Dog Run at Houston's Discovery Green playground. (Photo by Paul Duron / CC BY 3.0)

Instead, urbanists should have been conceiving of ways to assist the downtown activists who are continuing to transform downtown America by attracting customers, improving services, altering the activities taking place in particular locations, erecting or converting buildings, changing land uses, opening businesses, and assisting the governments that are reducing the cost of doing business or living downtown.

How to Assist Downtown America

Very few urbanists still recommend the radical redevelopment projects that were prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. The infrastructure subsidies now being proposed are devoted largely to rehabilitation, repair, and maintenance — not new highway construction — and only occasionally additional mass transit. Stadiums and other megaprojects are still being proposed but in fewer places, largely because of local opposition or spending constraints. Tax rebates and direct subsidies remain popular, however, and at the right time, for the right purposes, and in the right places they will be effective.

There are many less expensive, more easily executed actions we can take to promote downtown America. Rather than engaging in cataclysmic redevelopment, building huge, extraordinarily expensive public facilities, or giving gifts (aka subsidies) to privately owned businesses, we should be devising actions that help the people and institutions who are changing. The best way to do this is to engage in activities that attract existing customers and even increase downtown demand, which people and institutions can profit from by changing land uses, renovating existing buildings, or erecting new structures. The more recent resurgence of many American downtowns has happened because of public action devised specifically to achieve one of these six objectives, all of which can be of benefit to any downtown at any time:

  • Establishing a distinctive image that identifies the downtown as a special, particularly desirable place;
  • Providing easy access to and convenient circulation within downtown;
  • Creating a public realm with plenty of room for people to pursue the activities for which they go downtown;
  • Sustaining a livable downtown environment that will attract and keep people downtown;
  • Reducing the cost of doing business downtown;
  • Making it easy to alter land uses, remodel existing buildings and build new facilities that meet the changing demands of downtown customers.

As long as there is already adequate or growing market demand for the results, these strategies will help the downtown grow and expand. Without that market, however, they will fail. The following examples demonstrate when and how these strategies work and when they don’t.

Enlarge and Enhance the Public Realm

In a city such as Denver, the transportation network is only one part of the infrastructure that makes a city’s downtown so successful. It brings residents, retail customers, and office workers downtown. When they get there, however, it is the public realm that provides them access to the places they use when doing the things for which they have come downtown. The 16th Street Transit Mall is Denver’s centerpiece from which people make their way to these places. But it is only one component of a public realm that has been vastly expanded and improved over the past half-century — a public realm that enabled downtown to accommodate nearly 20,000 additional people and 22,000 jobs since 1990.

Any downtown that is growing will have to expand and improve the public realm so that it can accommodate an increase in people and activity. New York City has been particularly effective in doing this without acquiring additional property by reconfiguring territory used by pedestrians, moving vehicles, and parking. In each instance, the number of people downtown increased substantially and, with them, safety and retail spending. Some of the most effective examples are along Broadway in Manhattan.

Visitors pack the pedestrian stretch of Times Square, along Broadway. (AP Photo / Mary Altaffer)

Everywhere that Broadway crosses a north–south avenue of the Manhattan Grid, a public square has emerged. The intersection of Broadway and Eighth Avenue at 59th Street connects Central Park with the Midtown business district to the south and the Upper West Side residential district to the north. In 1892 the intersection was renamed Columbus Circle, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America. Two years later, a 70-foot-high column topped with a sculpture of the famous Italian explorer was erected at its center. Neither the Circle nor the traffic islands between the arteries that passed through the area could really be called a public square, however.

In 2005, the city transformed this traffic roundabout into a 148,000-square-foot circular public realm designed by the landscape architecture firm Olin Partnership, with trees, benches, planting, and fountains by WET, a design firm responsible for numerous fountains around the world. It was only then that New York City finally had transformed this small portion of its public realm into a site worthy of the title public square.

Two years later, when Janette Sadik-Khan became the city’s transportation commissioner, the city took the more ambitious step of transforming its entire network (“6,300 miles of streets, 12,000 miles of sidewalks, more than 1 million street signs, 12,700 intersections with traffic signals, 315,000 streetlights, and 789 bridges”) into a public realm that could handle the additional 1 million residents that the city expected by 2030. She initiated the Sustainable Streets program to “cut traffic fatalities in half, introduce a system of dedicated bus and bicycle lanes, install more efficient lighting, and reclaim arterial streets for pedestrian use.”

If the transformation of Columbus Circle where Broadway crosses Eighth Avenue was dramatic, the results were even more so at Times Square, where Broadway crosses Seventh Avenue. Working with the Times Square Alliance and its president, Tim Tompkins, the Department of Transportation removed all vehicular traffic from Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets and rerouted the traffic southward along Seventh Avenue. The roadway was repaved, with new lighting and seating installed, to create a continuous pedestrian realm. Now 80 percent fewer people are walking in the roadway. Between 2004 and 2009, the first 5 years during which these five blocks of Broadway were closed, the average number of traffic crashes with injuries fell 14 percent. The number of people there on a typical summer Saturday between 8 a.m. and noon increased from 48,600 in 2002 to 142,300 people in 2012, a 293 percent increase. Nearly quadrupling the number of people in the area over 10 years probably caused the 48 percent decline in reported criminal incidents for the area.

Most cities are not as inventive as New York or Denver in improving both the pedestrian environment and vehicular circulation. In Los Angeles (with the nation’s largest city sidewalk system), half of its 11,000 miles of sidewalk are in disrepair, because for most of the past half century the city has spent less than 1 percent of its transportation budget on sidewalks, crosswalks and signals. It was not until 2015 that Los Angeles finally committed to serious spending on pedestrian improvements and sidewalk repairs, but only as the result of a $1.4-billion settlement in Willets v. City of Los Angeles, the largest disability access class action settlement in U.S. history.

During most of the 20th century, our public realm had been determined by highway engineers. Today, our public officials should be examining how to alter vehicular and pedestrian use for the benefit of the public at large. That way squares (while continuing to carry huge amounts of traffic) can also become territory for recreational and pedestrian use.

Sustain a Habitable Environment

Because the country has become less dependent on fossil fuel–generated electric power, gasoline-consuming motor vehicles have become the major contributor to climate change in the United States. Thus, if downtowns are to enhance the public realm, downtowns must take actions that sustain a habitable environment.

People who lived in 19th-century downtowns with major industrial production breathed polluted air, drank unsanitary water, and used streets filled with household refuse, horse manure, and waste that did not make it to the often-absent sewer systems. It is now more than a century since any but a tiny number of American downtowns has experienced these problems. However, there are actions that can be and are being taken to improve their habitability. The improvements to access and circulation described earlier in this chapter are reducing air pollution and noise. Personal safety has increased by enlarging and enhancing the public realm, as has the amount of time downtown occupants devote to exercise and thus to improving public health. Nevertheless, there are still places that need remediation. Equally important, there is much we can do to continue increasing downtown resilience.

Trees are the most effective and underestimated downtown occupants that improve air quality while reducing noise, absorbing runoff, and stabilizing ambient temperature. Many cities, not just those with ample parkland, include substantial amounts of private property with tree cover. For example, tree canopy covers 35 percent of the total land area of Washington, D.C., 33 percent of St. Paul, and 32 percent of Minneapolis.

Many cities devote substantial resources to planting trees, shrubs and greenery. Between 1996 and 2006, Chicago planted 300,000 street trees and added 70 miles of median strip planters. Los Angeles planted 407,000 street trees between 2007 and 2013. In 2007, New York City initiated a program that resulted in planting an additional 1 million trees over a 10-year period. In addition, between 1997 and 2013, New York City transformed more than 2,500 paved traffic triangles that were not essential to vehicular flow into 169 acres of parklets.

Although trees make a substantial difference, the most effective way to improve the habitability of a city is with parkland. New York City, Boston and San Francisco have set aside approximately 20 percent of their territory for parkland. Because they contain so much parkland, these cities can accommodate intense waves of added use, as well as continuing changes to the climate, economy, or population. The amount of public parkland in most cities continues to grow, with New York City in the forefront. Among its most significant additions are the 550 acres of the 4.5-mile-long Hudson River Park (established in 1992), 85 acres of the 1.3-mile-long Brooklyn Bridge Park (established in 2002), and 2,200 acres of Staten Island’s Fresh Creek Park (in development since 2008).

An easy way of creating new parkland is by acquiring more land than is needed for a popular project and reusing the surplus as parkland. Georges Eugene Haussmann in 19th-century Paris and Robert Moses in 20th-century New York City and on Long Island were particularly imaginative and successful in using this technique, a recent example of which is the creation of Discovery Green in downtown Houston.

Discovery Green is an 11.8-acre park designed by Hargreaves Associates, opened in 2008 in conjunction with Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. It tied together three major hotels, the Astros’ Minute Maid Baseball Park, the Toyota Center Basketball Arena, new apartment buildings, and stores in the surrounding district. In addition to splendid new trees and other plantings, Discovery Green includes a 2-acre lawn, a lake, a fountain, 1 acre of floral gardens, a jogging trail, bocce courts, bandstands, performance areas, food stands, two restaurants, three major works of art (including a sculpture by Jean Dubuffet), two dog runs, playgrounds, a putting green, and recreational areas for people of every age built on top of a 630-car underground garage. As a result of these investments in the public realm, there are now scores of people using a section of downtown that was devoid of pedestrians at the start of the 21st century.

Denver's Confluence Park is the result of polluted waterways turned into and augmented by surrounding parkland. (Photo by Robert Cutts / CC BY 2.0)

Denver’s approach has been far more complex and perhaps even more successful. As explained earlier, it began in 1982 with the transformation of 16th Street into a transitway with a free bus connecting all the major downtown destinations. The bus itself was later connected to the entire metropolitan area by the FasTracks regional light rail system and to the Union Station transit hub, which also provided heavy rail service to Denver International Airport.

This investment in transit was matched by the transformation of polluted waterways into parkland. Denver began reconsidering, replanning, restoring and enlarging its creek parks in response to major flooding in 1965. Nine years later, the Greenway Foundation was established to engage the public and gain support for improvements to the Cherry Creek and South Platte River Corridors. The first results were the transformation of the place where these two waterways came together, an area surrounded by underused 19th-century warehouses and manufacturing lofts.

The site was transformed into Confluence Park, a combination of a kayak run, walking trails, performance sites, and river overlooks that has been continuously improved ever since, most significantly in a $9-million renovation completed in 2016. The Greenway Foundation continued with efforts to restore and enlarge the 12-mile downtown portion of Cherry Creek, which ran along Speer Boulevard.

Next came the commitment to restore and expand the 10.5-mile stretch of the South Platte River, which ran through Denver. In 1996 Mayor Wellington Webb established the South Platte River Corridor Council to coordinate planning, community outreach, fundraising, and development of the park corridor. The results include two extensions of Confluence Park along the south side of the South Platte River: 20-acre Commons Park and 35-acre City of Cuernavaca Park. They provided the setting for playgrounds that attract a variety of local children, grassy natural amphitheaters that are used for outdoor performances throughout the year, and jogging trails that are popular with Millennials. Perhaps even more important, the parkland increases the attractiveness of surrounding sites as real estate development opportunities, which is why developers have erected dozens of market-rate apartment buildings facing these parks. This new housing, along with the already existing residential properties in LoDo, has helped downtown Denver become a vibrant, high-density, mixed-use downtown with increasingly marketable residential districts. Simultaneously, its constantly improving park system, pedestrianized and cycling-friendly environment, and extensive transit system are improving downtown habitability.

Cities as different from one another as Houston, Denver, and Chicago have been investing in increasing the amount of territory they devote to plant and animal life, in the process improving the habitability of the overall environment. By copying their most effective techniques we can do the same while also attracting additional business and residents.

Take Necessary Action

Any of these actions will make life downtown easier and more pleasant. However, creating vibrant downtowns for a new generation requires combining them in a manner that will continue to attract people, businesses, and institutions.

Adapted from “The Heart of the City: Creating Vibrant Downtowns for a New Century,” by Alexander Garvin. Copyright © 2019 Alexander Garvin. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Alexander Garvin is currently President and CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists, Inc., a planning and design firm in New York City that is responsible for the initial master plans for the Atlanta BeltLine, Tessera (a 700-acre new community outside Austin), and Hinton Park in Collierville, Tennessee. Garvin is Adjunct Professor of Urban Planning and Management at Yale University, where he has taught a wide range of subjects, in addition to three courses in the School of Architecture. He is also the author of the book “The American City: What Works, What Doesn't,” published by McGraw-Hill and winner of the 1996 American Institute of Architects book award in urbanism. (An updated, expanded, full-color 3rd edition was released in 2013). He is the author of “The Planning Game: Lessons from Great Cities,” published by W. W. Norton in 2013, among other titles. Garvin earned his B.A., M.Arch, and M.U.S. from Yale University.