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What does Value of Downtowns report tell us about tomorrow’s cities and regions? (Part 2)

February 14, 2018

By David Dixon

New report provides a window to the future, which includes autonomous vehicles, job growth, and community diversity

In Part 1 of this blog series, I talked about the origins of a long-term partnership between Stantec and the International Downtown Association (IDA). Value of U.S. Downtowns and Center Cities report is the first product of our collaboration. Evaluating a pilot group of 13 downtowns that vary in size, location, and degree of economic success, the study represents the first attempt to quantify how much of a city’s economic performance comes from its downtown. At the same time, the study introduces new, replicable ways of measuring a downtown’s contribution to its city’s level of social inclusion, identity, vibrancy, and resilience.

Now, in Part 2, I’d like to examine what the findings laid out in the Value of U.S. Downtowns and Center Cities can tell us about the future of downtowns, cities, and metro areas.

To revitalize an underutilized 17-acre site in the heart of downtown Charlotte, our development team is supporting master planning, design, and development for Brooklyn Village, a mixed-use neighborhood with over 1,200 homes, including 107 affordable workforce housing units; cultural space; office space; retail; and nearly two acres of parks and open space. 

Through this study, it is clear downtowns are well positioned to play an essential role in helping their communities manage dramatic changes in economics, demographics, markets, and values that are reshaping our cities and regions:

Competing for knowledge jobs and investment

The first baby boomer retirements have already dramatically slowed workforce growth. At the same time, new jobs require increasing levels of education: a recent analysis of US data shows that all new jobs created since January 2008—more than 4 million—went to people with a college degree. These educated workers overwhelmingly prefer to live in cities and regions with vital downtowns, and the knowledge industries driving job growth follow these workers. Just look at Amazon’s HQ2 finalists to appreciate the way downtowns can make or break regional economic competitiveness.

Responding to growing fiscal pressures

The continued pullback of federal resources for cities will force communities to become more entrepreneurial in creating and capturing new value. Investing in their downtowns to support strong housing and office markets (since the mid-1990s, downtown commercial real estate has appreciated twice as fast as suburban property) offers a way to tap new value and draw the educated workers who, in turn, attract new businesses. 

Some forward-thinking suburban communities have already figured out a downtown’s importance and built their own walkable city centers, often from scratch.

Turning diversity into community

Historically, downtown has served as the symbolic heart of a city that welcomes everyone (for starters, municipal offices often locate there; the study found that the average downtown has 20 community and civic places). Cities can double down on this role to make sure that increasing downtown success doesn’t push out low-income residents or make them feel unwelcome. They can also divert some of the value created by new development to help fund affordable housing, new parks, and new connections for walking and biking. Place-management groups can work with new businesses to set up job-training programs that help lower-skilled residents and build an employee pipeline for businesses.

Preparing for the autonomous mobility revolution

The spread of shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs)—running on technology that already exists—will boost downtowns across North America. Central cities offer the critical mass of people and destinations the new mobility will need to succeed, and success will bring compelling economics: subscribing to on-demand SAVs will cost far less money and deliver far more convenience than owning a car. As SAVs out-compete private ownership, they’ll dramatically enhance the value of downtown on multiple levels. For example, falling demand for parking will increase development opportunities while decreasing costs; reclaiming unneeded parking lots can give residents more parks; every live/work/play/cultural amenity in one part of downtown will be easy to reach from every part of downtown, increasing downtown’s appeal (and value) to everyone.

The Stantec team is working with the City of Chamblee, a rapidly urbanizing suburb of Atlanta, to evaluate the feasibility of deploying shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) along the downtown main street. Combining data with on the ground assessments, focus groups, development potential, and infrastructure evaluation, we are helping the community understand the costs, benefits and their readiness for SAV deployment.

The strongest endorsement of downtown value comes from a counterintuitive place: suburbia. Some forward-thinking suburban communities have already figured out a downtown’s importance and built their own walkable city centers, often from scratch. Examples include Storrs, Connecticut; Sandy Springs, Georgia; Dublin, Ohio; Carmel, Indiana; and Lenexa, Kansas. Even though some of these communities are politically conservative, they find the arguments about market demand and future-proofing persuasive enough to embark on big projects led by local government in partnership with developers.

What do you think?

The Value of Downtowns report represents the first product of a long-term partnership between Stantec’s Urban Places and IDA. We’ve already begun planning a 2019 report in which we’ll double the number of cities studied and further refine our methodology.

  • David Dixon

    Residential Architecture Magazine named David to their Hall of Fame as “the person we call to ask about cities"

    Contact David
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