Since the rise of cities 8,000 years ago, humans have only wanted to walk about 1500 feet until they begin looking for an alternative means of transport: a horse, a tram, a bicycle, or a car. This distance translates to the size of say – Mayfair in London, or Lower Manhattan in New York – ie some of the most desirable and expensive places to live anywhere.
However the willingness to walk isn’t just about the distance. People will walk 1500 feet or more only if they have an interesting and safe streetscape and people to watch along the way— ie a mix of sights and sounds that can make a pedestrian forget that he is unintentionally getting enjoyable exercise. A new experience can be had, in fact, nearly every time you take to the streets. Fostering such walkable urbanism is the key to the revival of any town centre. Doing so can be a challenging process, requiring the development of a complex mix of retail, boutiques, hotels, grocery stores, housing, offices, artists’ studios, restaurants, and entertainment venues.
A “critical mass” of these pedestrian-scale uses must be established as quickly as possible, before the initial revitalisation efforts stall for lack of support. This means making certain that visitors can find enough to do for 4 to 6 hours; residents daily needs can be comfortably met; and rents and sales prices continue to justify new construction or renovation. Reaching critical mass means that the redevelopment process is unstoppable. An upward spiral begins to create a “buzz,” the number of people on the streets, raises property values, and makes the community feel safer. Simply put, in a viable town centre, more is better – more uses, density and people.
Numerous consumer surveys – in particular in the US have shown that up to 50 percent of all households in the metropolitan areas surveyed want walkable urbanism. In the UK government policy supports the concept through the need to reduce carbon emissions and concerns over the obesity rates (projected to be over 50% of Britons by 2050). Specific initiatives include the ‘Eco Towns’ and ‘Fit Towns’.
‘Downtown’ revitalisation can also bring additional economic development benefits. With increasing demand for walkable urbanism and a dearth of such neighbourhoods in most urban areas, cities with vibrant downtowns have a better shot of recruiting or retaining the “creative class” of workers – ie the entrepreneurs – that economists, like Richard Florida (see Creative Class), have shown is key to future growth. It is becoming increasingly recognised that if a town or city does not have a vibrant, ‘hip’ centre it does not have a chance of recruiting or retaining the twenty-something A-B socio economic groups that are the future lifeblood of any economy. If this essential group cannot get the walkable urbanism they crave in one town they will go to places where they can get this lifestyle, such as London (Islington), Bristol (Clifton) and central areas of Edinburgh et cetera. A purely suburban, car-dominated metropolitan area is at a competitive disadvantage for economic growth.
We summarise below the steps to successfully rebuild and reinvigorate town centres. It breaks broadly in two parts, initially focussing on the wider context and stakeholder groups before looking in greater detail at a phased sectoral approach to bringing forward physical (property) development. It draws on a paper by the Chris Leinberger (Brookings Institute) that investigated similar issues in the US, where as a result of having greater inner city problems to overcome, have generally come up with more thoughtful strategic approaches and organisational development tools to solve more entrenched problems.
Step 1: Vision - Town or city centre turnarounds require a physical definition of the existing place, a comprehensive strategy for the place to be created, and management to implement the strategy. Such a strategy must include, among other things, the creation of walkable streets and sidewalks; public transport proposals; shared-use structured car parking; culture and entertainment; increased safety and cleanliness; and marketing.
Step 4: Create Supportive Planning Policies - If the central areas of Oxford, Cambridge and other much beloved and vibrant older British towns and cities burned to the ground, legally it would not be possible to rebuild them as a result of well meaning but often misguided planning and other policy (eg over zealous rights of light making intimate lanes impossible). Also, excessive parking requirements can create large surface lots or unsightly multi storey parking and attract high levels of car use eroding the vitality of otherwise coherent places. Coupled with an emphasis on separation of land uses and limited densities, revitalisation becomes nearly impossible. Clear planning policy is required that will make it easy to produce the density and walkability a downtown needs to thrive.
Step 5: Establish BIDs and Promote the Third Sector - One of the leading ways the private/public process is implemented is through various non-profits, particularly business improvement districts (BID). There are now nearly 100 BIDs in the UK (1400 in the US) and it is now well understood that establishing a BID is crucial to the successful revitalisation of a town or city centre or downtown. In essence, the BID is the quasi-government for the downtown, and the provider of services the city government cannot deliver.
Step 6: Create a PPP (eg Local Asset Backed Vehicle) to Catalyse Physical Development - Most conventional developers do not have the experience, investors, bankers, or inclination to carry out complex mixed use developments in run down town and city centre locations. The difference between, single use, car-oriented suburban development and integrated, mixed-use, walkable urban development is substantial. Accordingly there is the need to establish a “catalytic developer.” This organisation is formed to develop the initial projects that the market and consumer research shows have potential demand but above market risk and will require all of the skills, knowledge and experience of the public and private sectors working in genuine partnership.(This article is an amended extract from the Brookings Institution: http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2005/03/downtownredevelopment-leinberger)