2016 Top 10 Downtowns
In the past two decades there has been a resurgence in America’s downtowns. This redevelopment isn’t just taking place in our largest metropolises. Small towns and mid-size cities are also experiencing a renaissance. The key in many places has been the expansion of housing options in previously retail-dominated stretches – which helps food and retail businesses survive and compete against their mall counterparts on the outskirts along the highway.
The cities and towns on our Top 10 Best Downtowns all exemplify the best trends in redevelopment. Some, like Alexandria, Va., are centered around a historic district that has survived for literally centuries. Others, like Pittsburgh, Pa., have seen their fortunes come and go and now come again. Still others, like Evanston, Ill., seem to be just now hitting their stride and coming into their own.
So how do we choose the Top 10?
As with all our lists, we start with the data on more than 2,000 small to mid-size cities. Using figures provided by Esri, the Census Bureau, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other sources, we look for places with low vacancy rates, new development and an influx of people into those new space. We look for the culture and nightlife that make cities great places to spend time outside the house – are there farmers markets, arts, parks, and do people take advantage of them by dining out and going out? Is this place growing and thriving both in terms of rising population and rising incomes? Are people there both day and night to give the town a feeling of vitality around the clock? And finally we add in factors that we typically include in all our lists, including the city’s Walk Score, measures of affordability and a diversity index. We want to find places that can work for everyone. We include some population parameters – we’re looking for places that are more than just a quaint Main Street.
Once we’ve crunched the numbers to create a shortlist, our editors hone that down to the Top 10 based on our research, experiences and a desire to create a list that’s diverse in terms of geography and size of the cities. As we report out the list, further changes can be made to the lineup and the specific order. The resulting list, therefore, is a combination of art and science brought to you by Livability's editorial team.
Now it’s your turn. How do you think we did? Any unsung gems we missed?
A mere 20 years ago, downtown Evanston, Ill. was a different place, and not one that would be a two-time honoree on our Top 10 Best Downtowns List. It was dotted with mom and pop restaurants and businesses. Some catered almost solely to the student population of Northwestern University, some seemed to shun this obvious client base. But after 5 p.m, Evanston was mostly quiet, with the exception of one late-night Burger King across the street from campus. The non-student population was generally seen as young, or old, with no middle ground. The joke was that Evanston residents were “newly wed, or almost dead.”
Fast-forward to today and downtown Evanston is thriving by taking full advantage of demographic, cultural and planning trends. As today’s 20-somethings have rediscovered the joys of walkable urban living, Evanston has added mixed-use and residential buildings in the heart of the Sherman Avenue commercial district. These apartments and condos have created a place for Northwestern’s students and other young singles and couples to live beyond graduation – taking full advantage of the public transit lines connecting this northern suburb to downtown Chicago.
The added density has allowed a nightlife culture to flourish with a new mix of chain and independent bars and restaurants including Boltwood which stars Brian Huston, a 2015 James Beard Award semifinalist for “Best Chef: Great Lakes.” Evanston’s Space is an outstanding small music venue that forced an expansion of the Chicago concert map. Several breweries and brewpubs have found a home here, despite the city’s roots as the home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which helped bring Prohibition to reality. The Northwestern campus itself offers plenty of cultural and sports programming for students and residents alike. Of course, one of the best features of Evanston predates the development and the university. Its downtown is just a quick walk to the beaches of Lake Michigan.