Our Top 10 Best Downtowns 2014 list showcases some of the fastest growing urban centers in the country. These are places attracting both new residents and businesses as they undergo significant improvements. While researching cities across the country, we spoke with David T. Downey, president and CEO of the International Downtown Association. This group connects diverse practitioners who transform cities into healthy and vibrant places. They hold conferences and provide educational opportunities and support to city leaders. The IDA also gives out achievement awards that recognize unique approaches and projects that have improved downtowns.
Here is an edited version of our talk with Mr. Downey.
Livability: What does it take to create a great downtown?
Downey: The emerging and vibrant downtowns spreading across the nation have not occurred overnight. They have been decades in the making under the watchful eye of businesses, civic leaders and, most importantly, professional place management experts who run downtown management organizations. Great downtowns have been built on a strong pro-business ethic, attracting 21st-century knowledge workers. They provide world-class cultural, entertainment and recreational amenities. Mobility options are plentiful as reliance on the automobile is declining. The best downtowns are inclusive, creative and innovative.
Livability: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen happening in downtowns over the last decade?
Downey: Downtowns have become the lifestyle choice for more than 51 percent of the population across the globe. Following decades of decline in the U.S., center cities are now attracting millennial and boomer generation residents in droves. With increasing competition to attract the top creative worker, the last decade has witnessed many businesses relocating to the downtown, new housing, and investment in civic amenities.
Livability: Why should communities invest in their downtowns?
Downey: To remain globally competitive, cities have no choice but to invest in their downtowns. Downtowns are home to creative clusters that are driving the new economy. Entrepreneurs, innovators and creative industries thrive on these connected and vibrant urban communities that bring people together to share ideas, compete and solve problems.
Livability: How does a city’s downtown reflect the overall well-being of a city?
Downey: The downtown is the economic engine of a city. As goes the city center, so goes the entire city and region. Eighty percent of the nation’s GDP comes from cities, and downtowns are the epicenter of business. Downtowns with a strong employment base, mobility and housing options, access to quality food, and a tolerance for diversity illustrate the overall attractiveness of an entire city striving to become a community of choice.
Livability: What are the key steps a community can take to improve the health and vibrancy of its downtown?
Downey: The great downtowns we enjoy today are a result of maintaining a clear and consistent vision over multiple decades. Without a clear vision, incremental progress will not result in a cohesive whole. Communities will be best served to enable place management organizations to create, activate and manage public spaces to deliver a vibrant community experience. Inviting diverse perspectives and people, and being open to engaging downtown constituents will enable any community to harness the creativity and passion of its citizens who will in turn guide the community toward the very strategies it needs to become vibrant.