Urban planning community

  • What is Downtown Today?

    By Perry Norton FAICP

    I have some knowledge of the historical roles of central cities, but what is the role today, if any? The central city is certainly not the hub of transportation anymore, nor is it the commercial/retail center. There is very little manufacturing in the center. In Detroit, General Motors Tech is out on the 8 Mile Road, isn't it?

    So, what's left? Well, the City and County Complex is probably downtown, and the courts, thus offices full of lawyers. There may be a theater or two, but there are theaters elsewhere - outside the centers of cities, in Overland Park KS, for example..

    In the August 1992 issue of Planning magazine (APA) there was an article titled "Is downtown worth saving?" It didn't strike me that the answer contained therein was a resounding "yes". Oh there were some contributors to the article who used poetic language about the downtown being the essence of ethnic diversity, and the intellectual village of the 21st century. They thought, as to be expected, that downtown was worth saving, but they didn't, in my opinion, contribute much to the question: for what?

    I posed the question to my friend, Larry Gerckens, arguably the premier urban planning historian. He expressed the thought that unless a major city is still focused on critical transport nodes, and has a natural hinterland of natural resources, it is likely to be dwindling in significance and susceptible of becoming a repository for the unwanted, surplus populations - the poor, uneducated, and dangerous. "Our own new Sowetos", was the phrase he used.

    Another correspondent, however, argued that the density of interactions that one encounters on the sidewalks and in the subways of New York City represented a central city function that was, of itself, a reason for sustaining centrality. He did, however, acknowledge that NYC (by which most people still mean Manhattan) was not typical, and probably can not be reproduced. However, another friend pointed out that centrality, instead of having lost its essential function, has become multi-modal (edge cities?) and that these provide for that density of excitement, of encounter which Manhattan still provides.

    Personally I find this a bit ephemeral. In history cities have had a unique role - a place for trade and commerce, a place for manufacturing. Having a "place for experiencing density" doesn't strike me as being a role of the same credibility as trade, commerce, and manufacturing.

    But, unless we can discover, or define and develop, a role for the central cities in our gigantic urban regions (far exceeding the metropolis), we may, indeed, see the emergence of our own new Sowetos. And, indeed, some have suggested that this has already begun, though we are loathe to take serious note of it.

    "What is Downtown Today?" was originally published on Cyburbia on January 7, 1996.

    Comments 16 Comments
    1. DetroitPlanner's avatar
      DetroitPlanner -
      Both GM and Chrysler manufacture in Detroit. GM's HQ is downtown in a building built by Henry Ford the Second. Masarati has also announced that it is going to be building a car in an older Chrysler facility that will be exported worldwide. You're right though. Most of downtown offices are filled with lawyers, consultants or others who are tied to City, County, State or Federal contracts. Detroit also contains a very large convention center, three casinos and lots of other hotels. Three of Detroit's four sports teams play downtown, and it remains the region's cultural center with and Opera House, Orchestra Hall, Music hall, several older movie houses that have been converted to mostly concert venues, as well as museums. In spite of all of this activity, you see very little retail. Even folks who have had nice businesses with great cutomers service and a good business plan see thier stores fold. People just don't shop downtown anymore. They prefer to shop at the mall. Now its rue that the GM Tech Center is located between 10 and 12 Mile Roads, but there is even a lack of retail around that facility. What is out there are closed manufacturing plants and a couple of military manufacturers.
    1. Dan's avatar
      Dan -
      Quote Originally posted by DetroitPlanner View post
      In spite of all of this activity, you see very little retail. Even folks who have had nice businesses with great cutomers service and a good business plan see thier stores fold. People just don't shop downtown anymore. They prefer to shop at the mall. Now its rue that the GM Tech Center is located between 10 and 12 Mile Roads, but there is even a lack of retail around that facility. What is out there are closed manufacturing plants and a couple of military manufacturers.
      I've seen several small towns throughout Upstate New York with beautifully restored downtowns, no missing gaps in the streetwall, surrounded by middle class residential areas, and their downtowns seem sleepier than they should be. All the storefronts may be occupied, but there's little pedestrian traffic. Geneva, Canandaigua, Medina, Seneca Falls, all with beautiful, mostly full but yet sleepy downtowns. Downtown Corning gets a bit of life at night, but during the day it's quiet.

      Why? I think that along with the storefronts and synergy, it takes a certain demographic, a population with a certain mindset, to have a vibrant downtown. Being a college town helps, but not always: the downtowns of Laramie, Wyoming; Greeley, Colorado and Las Cruces, New Mexico are devoid of streetlife. Having a very large population of "outdoorsy" transplants seems to help; Grand Junction, Colorado is an example of a community that I wouldn't call a college town (Colorado Mesa University, 8000 students, so obscure not even hipsters have heard of it) has a somewhat active downtown; not as packed at Fort Collins or Boulder, but not like Greeley either. A "crunchy" population also helps; consider downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan versus Lansing.
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      I think that downtown advocates have a vision of people's life-styles that just doesn't fit reality. Downtown advocates have this vison of a large mass of people who live and work in/near downtown, and who frequently patronize downtown restaurants and events. They see a downtown area that's busy from morning into the wee hours of the next morning every day -- the "24 hour city". IMO, this vision probably never really fit reality, even in the "good old days" when all the big department stores, movie houses, sports venues, and good restaurants were located in downtown areas. I won't speak for other cities, but the fact is that in the heyday of Buffalo's downtown, the department stores were only open late on Thursday nights, and it was Friday and Saturday nights that were for "going out". Since commercial establishments of all kinds were closed because of blue-laws on Sundays, the downtowns weren't all that "busy" most of the week after the business day, even if there were sporting or entertainment events held on Sundays.

      Most people I know don't go out every night or every other night, either because they have kids, they can't afford to, or they have other commitments -- like their bowling league, household chores, etc. Then there's all the entertainment you can get right in your living room or den. Most people simply don't attend multiple entertainment events in a week all that frequently, and even if they do, they don't necessarily do the entire dinner before the event/the event/dinner after event thing. I think it's more common for people to attend entertainment events occasionally, maybe once a month, but probably not more frequently than once a week. I think that the exception to this would be season ticket holders to sports teams, but speaking from personal experience, these people go for the game and the game experience, and NOT for dinner/drinks before or after every game.

      Moreover, people are NOT necessarily tied to dinner/drinks near the event location. They may very well eat at home or get a quick meal at a fast food restaurant, especially if they have kids. If they go out before/after an event, they may very well go to places that they're familiar with or that are on their way to/from the event but not necessarily in near the event venue itself, be it downtown or out in the 'burbs.
    1. Cardinal's avatar
      Cardinal -
      This is certainly an article to elicit some thoughts. My mind immediately turned to small towns rather than big cities. In many of those rural towns that never grew to more than a couple thousand residents, the downtown has never lost its place as the civic, social, and economic hub. It is perhaps as simple as noting that a highway strip never materialized. Dollar General placed its store where the old department store used to be on Main Street. The elevator and feed store is still the biggest industry. Our big cities have had mixed results in bringing new life to downtown. Places like Chicago, maybe, never lost it. Places like Milwaukee, Portland, and Pittsburgh have had some success, if not entirely succeeding. For different reasons, Atlanta and Buffalo Have made little progress.What is the role for downtown? Like Perry, I would have to say that it is a mix of the roles it has traditionally had. Maybe manufacturing is no longer realistic, but why not many of the "new" industries in information, finance, schientific, and technical fields instead? Downtown won't have the department stores, but why not the retail to support people living in the downtown area, along with specialty retail to attract visitors? Of course downtown should also have government uses, banking, and services. There is also entertainment. Lastly, people to live there, work there, and visit.
    1. ColoGI's avatar
      ColoGI -
      Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
      I think that downtown advocates have a vision of people's life-styles that just doesn't fit reality. Downtown advocates have this vison of a large mass of people who live and work in/near downtown, and who frequently patronize downtown restaurants and events. They see a downtown area that's busy from morning into the wee hours of the next morning every day -- the "24 hour city". IMO, this vision probably never really fit reality, even in the "good old days" when all the big department stores, movie houses, sports venues, and good restaurants were located in downtown areas. ...Moreover, people are NOT necessarily tied to dinner/drinks near the event location. They may very well eat at home or get a quick meal at a fast food restaurant, especially if they have kids. If they go out before/after an event, they may very well go to places that they're familiar with or that are on their way to/from the event but not necessarily in near the event venue itself, be it downtown or out in the 'burbs.
      Hasty generalizations notwithstanding, and considering this:

      Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
      I've seen several small towns throughout Upstate New York with beautifully restored downtowns, no missing gaps in the streetwall, surrounded by middle class residential areas, and their downtowns seem sleepier than they should be. All the storefronts may be occupied, but there's little pedestrian traffic. Geneva, Canandaigua, Medina, Seneca Falls, all with beautiful, mostly full but yet sleepy downtowns. Downtown Corning gets a bit of life at night, but during the day it's quiet.

      Why? I think that along with the storefronts and synergy, it takes a certain demographic, a population with a certain mindset, to have a vibrant downtown. Being a college town helps, but not always: the downtowns of Laramie, Wyoming; Greeley, Colorado and Las Cruces, New Mexico are devoid of streetlife. Having a very large population of "outdoorsy" transplants seems to help; Grand Junction, Colorado is an example of a community that I wouldn't call a college town (Colorado Mesa University, 8000 students, so obscure not even hipsters have heard of it) has a somewhat active downtown; not as packed at Fort Collins or Boulder, but not like Greeley either. A "crunchy" population also helps; consider downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan versus Lansing.
      I'd add that a highway driving traffic away from downtown and the BigBox might have something to do with languishing downtowns as well. And/or a live-work gap too great to allow time to partake in local businesses, etc.
    1. jsk1983's avatar
      jsk1983 -
      Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
      I've seen several small towns throughout Upstate New York with beautifully restored downtowns, no missing gaps in the streetwall, surrounded by middle class residential areas, and their downtowns seem sleepier than they should be. All the storefronts may be occupied, but there's little pedestrian traffic. Geneva, Canandaigua, Medina, Seneca Falls, all with beautiful, mostly full but yet sleepy downtowns. Downtown Corning gets a bit of life at night, but during the day it's quiet.

      Why? I think that along with the storefronts and synergy, it takes a certain demographic, a population with a certain mindset, to have a vibrant downtown. Being a college town helps, but not always: the downtowns of Laramie, Wyoming; Greeley, Colorado and Las Cruces, New Mexico are devoid of streetlife. Having a very large population of "outdoorsy" transplants seems to help; Grand Junction, Colorado is an example of a community that I wouldn't call a college town (Colorado Mesa University, 8000 students, so obscure not even hipsters have heard of it) has a somewhat active downtown; not as packed at Fort Collins or Boulder, but not like Greeley either. A "crunchy" population also helps; consider downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan versus Lansing.
      What kinds of businesses are in those towns? Probably not high volume ones. Are the storefronts mostly retail or more service oriented?

      Successful small town downtowns usually tend to be tourist towns and serve as a destination. New Glarus, Wisconsin is pretty successful. After the cheese factory shut down they decided to market themselves as a tourist destination playing up their Swiss heritage (many of the buildings have traditional Swiss style facades tacked onto 19th century vernacular buildings). Thus most of the businesses cater to tourists and the town serves as a destination to spend a few hours or a day in while the average New Glarus resident probably heads to the outskirts of town or another larger town altogether for their regular shopping needs.
    1. docwatson's avatar
      docwatson -
      I think that downtown advocates have a vision of people's life-styles that just doesn't fit reality. Downtown advocates have this vison of a large mass of people who live and work in/near downtown, and who frequently patronize downtown restaurants and events. They see a downtown area that's busy from morning into the wee hours of the next morning every day -- the "24 hour city". IMO, this vision probably never really fit reality,
      I'd say this vision is pretty spot-on in describing contemporary Vancouver, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Toronto, Montreal (counting the high-density neighborhoods adjacent to downtown, sucha s the Pearl district in Portland or Belltown in Seattle). Heck, even Denver, in a fairly anti-urban region, has added 10,000 residents within walking distance of Union Station, with the Platter River restoration and creation of Confluence Park, and is seeing significant development in neighborhoods adjacent to downtown (Uptown, Golden Triangle). Not to mention the vibrant historic Capital Hill area of 3-4 story brick deco apartment buildings. Office towers that we vacant in the 1980s oil bust are occupied, and Union Station is being rehabbed as the center of our growing rail system. The 16th Street Mall features restaurants and more shopping in addition to our standby mid-box retailers as "Ross Dress for Less" and "Office Depot" ... And I can attest that I was out until 3 AM on my birthday recently ...

      As for major shopping, I agree the multi-story downtown department store is rare outside of NYC, but there are examples of cities with major shopping downtown - Toronto has the former Eaton Centre, and Arlington County, VA has suburban TOD examples with a mall accessed by the Metro rail system (near the Pentagon) and the urban Targets. I think it all has to do with the patterns of infrastructure and how the private sector has responded to this - do we plan for edge cities and build highways accordingly, or do we plan for vibrant downtowns and build rail accordingly. Portland I have found to be a great example of how housing and business has blended with some really attractive and creative public spaces.

      IMO, I always thought "24 hour downtown" should refer to the fact the people live there - not necessarily that they're awake 24 hours - but I've never been sure exactly what was implied by this phrase?

      Not to pick on the rust belt, but out here gentrification, not population loss, is our issue ...

      I think what we have to remember is that downtown is but one place on the transect - but if we strengthen it not just as civic attraction, but as an area whose economics, land use and transportation infrastructure re-inforce one another, then we can have a more sustainable region all along the transect. Let us not forget that infrastructure investment creates land value - when we drive a highway thru urban neighborhoods and along a waterfront, we used public dollars to destroy value in those areas to create value in suburban settings.

      I'll add that even in our small towns we can imagine downtowns as more than two rows of boutiques, gift shops, restaurants and maybe the public event center. Every town has some demand for multi-family housing and office space, maybe a hotel, and public facilities (city hall) can round out the picture. We are working with a small rural town (10,000) that has built a 150-space parking garage and lured a 7-screen theater to its downtown. On the other hand, I reflect that Fort Collins saw two office and four residential mid-rises (10-12 stories) built before, according to one advocate, the citizens rose up and passed a height limit downtown ...
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      Docwatson:

      My point wasn't that there aren't downtowns that are "flourishing" as boosters would like them to do, but that there really aren't that many of them that are. The general pattern is that most downtown areas in most cities in the US are fairly busy during the work day but they largely empty out by 7PM. Usually there's steady but modest traffic to downtown restaurants and regular entertainment venues. Bigger crowds turn out for concerts, sporting events, and other special events, but most downtowns don't "bustle" every night. I think as Dan said, it depends upon the demographics: can a city attract enough people who want to live/play in downtown to make downtown "bustle" nightly? I think that in most US cities, the answer is no.
    1. docwatson's avatar
      docwatson -
      My point wasn't that there aren't downtowns that are "flourishing" as boosters would like them to do, but that there really aren't that many of them that are. The general pattern is that most downtown areas in most cities in the US are fairly busy during the work day but they largely empty out by 7PM. Usually there's steady but modest traffic to downtown restaurants and regular entertainment venues. Bigger crowds turn out for concerts, sporting events, and other special events, but most downtowns don't "bustle" every night. I think as Dan said, it depends upon the demographics: can a city attract enough people who want to live/play in downtown to make downtown "bustle" nightly? I think that in most US cities, the answer is no.
      Point taken. Although I would argue my list includes almost every 1m+ metro on the west coast and in the Rocky Mountain region, so that seems to be a pattern if there were one ... I would personally be more interested in looking at "medium sized" cities like Buffalo, Indianapolis, Spokane to see what is working and what isn't ... IMO, I am much more interested in how sustainable a city's transportation and land use patterns are and its quality of public amenities (trails, parklands, waterfronts) than how bustling it is every evening, although I'm sure the two relate. The Brookings Institute cites the presence of an "entertainment district" as the draw that leads to rental housing, followed by other development (retail, condos, office revitalization). I suppose if there are people around, it will not only be attractive for some people to live there, it will feel safer.
    1. ColoGI's avatar
      ColoGI -
      Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
      Point taken. Although I would argue my list includes almost every 1m+ metro on the west coast and in the Rocky Mountain region, so that seems to be a pattern if there were one ... I would personally be more interested in looking at "medium sized" cities like Buffalo, Indianapolis, Spokane to see what is working and what isn't ... IMO, I am much more interested in how sustainable a city's transportation and land use patterns are and its quality of public amenities (trails, parklands, waterfronts) than how bustling it is every evening, although I'm sure the two relate. The Brookings Institute cites the presence of an "entertainment district" as the draw that leads to rental housing, followed by other development (retail, condos, office revitalization). I suppose if there are people around, it will not only be attractive for some people to live there, it will feel safer.
      We should be careful when generalizing to include the fact that in most downtown...erm..."revitalizations", the rich are doing most of the revitalizationing. Sure there are some lofts and condos and such, but how many of them are being occupied by the bottom two quintiles? Very few. Before we start drawing conclusions about trends and changing cities, we should wait to see whether everyone starts going there.

      Just a thought.
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
      Point taken. Although I would argue my list includes almost every 1m+ metro on the west coast and in the Rocky Mountain region, so that seems to be a pattern if there were one ... I would personally be more interested in looking at "medium sized" cities like Buffalo, Indianapolis, Spokane to see what is working and what isn't ... IMO, I am much more interested in how sustainable a city's transportation and land use patterns are and its quality of public amenities (trails, parklands, waterfronts) than how bustling it is every evening, although I'm sure the two relate. The Brookings Institute cites the presence of an "entertainment district" as the draw that leads to rental housing, followed by other development (retail, condos, office revitalization). I suppose if there are people around, it will not only be attractive for some people to live there, it will feel safer.
      I would argue that the real "bang for the buck" for mid-sized cities in much of the East is in stabilizing and revitalizing their residential neighborhoods where people already live rather than trying to create new neighborhoods downtown where people haven't lived since WW I or earlier because the existing housing was demo'd and replaced with businesses. These cities don't need new neighborhoods because they are losing population. They need to preserve and improve their existing neighborhoods rather than let these areas decay and their residents flee to the suburbs.

      I also totally agree with ColoGI that most downtown residential housing that I've seen is aimed at high-end renters and buyers, not at people lower down the economic scale. Essentially, these units are priced out of the range of the young workers who would most like to live downtown. The going rate for a downtown condo in Buffalo is about twice the median price of a single family detached home in Erie County. Rents run $300-$500 a month more downtown than for bigger apartments located in the very desirable Delaware District, which is just a bus ride away from downtown.
    1. docwatson's avatar
      docwatson -
      Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
      We should be careful when generalizing to include the fact that in most downtown...erm..."revitalizations", the rich are doing most of the revitalizationing. Sure there are some lofts and condos and such, but how many of them are being occupied by the bottom two quintiles? Very few. Before we start drawing conclusions about trends and changing cities, we should wait to see whether everyone starts going there.
      But what does this have to do with revitalization, or whether something is a trend? Ex-urban sprawl has certainly been a trend, even though I would guess it’s the top two quintiles that are also buying the McMansions. From a land use/transport perspective, if downtown residences are being occupied in large numbers, that is a trend worth talking about. The top two quintiles are, after all, half the population. When a place is desirable, it will cost money to live there. When it’s dumpy, not so much.

      I think where your point is very salient is in how we envision/regulate redevelopment; and what public monies go into what many would see as "gentrification."

      On the first point, I really think we need to go beyond "some lofts and condos" to actually basing our planning on market demand and sound land use, which means more than boutique-scale projects that serve only the high end, to actually locating a good amount of a region’s needed multi-family housing (and offices) in the core and surrounding transit corridors (I won’t say just downtown), or rehabbing what is already there.

      On the second point, I think you raise the question I struggle with - how much public investment should go into gentrification? I suppose there are different public purposes – rehabbing historic buildings into condos may save these buildings and catalyze further investment in the downtown, thereby utilizing existing infrastructure (like that costly little subway Buffalo has ….), while weatherizing the many old houses in Buffalo where lower-income folks spend hundreds of dollars a month on heat and hot water would keep money in the economy and perhaps convince middle-income homebuyers that these neighborhoods aren’t so shabby after all.

      The first type of project yields TIF, but nonetheless I do ask myself if we are looking too much at “gentrification” revitalization as a public goal. If an area is low income but lacks assets like decent parks, safe sidewalks and trails, etc., should we not be seeing the “public benefit” of investment there? I do fear the “trickle down” mentality, so common in our nation, seeped into planning in the last decades ...? Some places like Portland have at least tied URA funds to affordable housing.
    1. Tarf's avatar
      Tarf -
      Seems to me gentrification only happens if the jurisdiction has failed in its obligation to have an inclusionary housing policy. If 10% of units (or more) are set aside, gentrification problems can be reduced significantly. You'll still have a change in character (from poor to mixed-wealthy), but that's not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion provided again that lower income folks have been accommodated.
    1. docwatson's avatar
      docwatson -
      Quote Originally posted by Tarf View post
      Seems to me gentrification only happens if the jurisdiction has failed in its obligation to have an inclusionary housing policy. If 10% of units (or more) are set aside, gentrification problems can be reduced significantly. You'll still have a change in character (from poor to mixed-wealthy), but that's not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion provided again that lower income folks have been accommodated.
      I don't think 'gentrification' is a bad thing per se. It seems these changes are in part symptomatic of rising income inequality - the recent census shows only 44% of Americans live in middle-income neighborhoods, down from 65% in 1970 - so it is only to be expected we will see gentrifying areas. And if transit/ped-friendly areas are considered desirable, that's a good thing, right?

      However, my question is are we targeting too much public funding and planning at a certain type of revitalization? I have seen projects with $700,000 condos that received URA funding (with no affordable housing linkage ... ), for example. Gentrification occurs on the market, sure, but are we making it into a "public purpose" considered worthy of subsidy? Another example would be building new sidewalks and parks in neighborhoods that can generate the TIF (because they are 'gentrifying' or redeveloping) while not concurrently improving these conditions in poorer neighborhoods (or even seeing poorer folks pushed out to inner-ring suburbs that lack amenities) because there is no funding source. There are also thorny issues, for example, where redlining had resulted in many residents being renters and not benefiting financially from the rising prices.

      I also think we should be cautious about considering a 10% set-aside as a cure-all for gentrification. While IZ policies are important in many markets, in downtowns or TOD's where people can benefit from mobility, I don't believe it is an antidote for a market that is out of equilibrium as IZ generally produces a set number of units of a certain type, income target, etc.

      That doesn't mean I believe there is a policy to implement that can prevent rising prices in a given locality (except perhaps broadly-applied rent control, but we don't go there in Colorado). What I do think is we should avoid policies that exacerbate rising prices. In the face of high housing demand, I know of cities that will continue to restrict supply by strong across-the-board limits on height, density, land zoned for multi-family or small-lot homes, restrictions on ADU's, and drawn out discretionary review processes subject to NIMBYism ...
    1. wahday's avatar
      wahday -
      Quote Originally posted by Tarf View post
      Seems to me gentrification only happens if the jurisdiction has failed in its obligation to have an inclusionary housing policy. If 10% of units (or more) are set aside, gentrification problems can be reduced significantly. You'll still have a change in character (from poor to mixed-wealthy), but that's not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion provided again that lower income folks have been accommodated.
      Inclusionary zoning applies primarily to new construction (or acquisition/rehab in some cases) making it hard to shoe-horn in affordable housing in the many places that are already built. For these places, affordable housing is likely to take the form of multi-family development, though that may not be allowed in the area's zone code. While affordable apartments are arguably necessary, it does not address home ownership issues and this is important because gentrification is about displacing low income people, including homeowners who can no longer pay their property taxes. Large swaths of single family homes built prior to inclusionary zoning that are a part of most US cities are prone to gentrification potentially because as land and home values rise disproportionately and begin displacing lower income homeowners, there is no land to build affordable homes in that area. And that leads to displacement - the major problem with gentrification. That's typically the dynamic we wrestle with here, primarily in our downtown (to link this back to the topic)

      Many incusionary zoning regulations also only kick in if the development is over a given number of units. Because infill single family development is usually on a small scale, it is often not required to have the affordability component. Its usually 10 homes or more. Because, how can you make 10 percent of two homes affordable?

      A bigger challenge in inclusionary zoning is ensuring that housing stock built with public money has LONG TERM affordability. Too often, this has not been the case and so inside of a fairly modest timeframe, like 10 years, these homes are selling at market rate and that affordability (and the public money that was invested in it) is lost, creating the need to build yet more (and more still, assuming the population is growing at the same time these affordable homes are being lost). There are mechanisms to ensure long term affordability like restricted deeds and land trusts (where I work). However, many municipalities lack the capacity to track all the deed restricted homes in their jurisdiction and that creates another challenge. Its unfortunately not an easy thing to get a handle on. Without ensuring long term affordability, any gentrifying area will continually wrestle with displacement of low income residents.

      The ideal situation for gentrification of any area, of course, is to improve the quality of life of existing residents at the same time new investment is coming in. Improvement of facades, facilities, parks, etc. is great and public money well spent, IMO, if the existing residents can stay and enjoy the benefits of those improvements. But if they are displaced, you are just pushing the problem around the city.
    1. Hamilton's avatar
      Hamilton -
      Perry your query has generated a lot of good discussion but I don’t think anyone has yet answered your question. The roles of the downtown haven’t changed. Although many cities have failed to maintain their downtown functions, that doesn’t mean that the role of the downtown is any less valid to planners today. Here are the roles as I see them.1. The public image of the City. The downtown is typically one of the oldest parts of town and the repository of a great deal of its history and heritage. That will never change. Even if you don’t like what you see today, you still can’t really say you have been to a city until you have been to its downtown.2. Visitor centre. Although we may visit cities for many specific reasons, most visitors to most cities will find themselves downtown. This is the natural location for tourist activities.3. Transportation hub. Although many cities have built peripheral highways and secondary centres of all kinds, the original port, the river crossing, the radial street pattern, the public transit system and the downtown institutions and the need for a central public place all trend towards the downtown as a long term transportation node.4. Central Business District. Every city needs a place where business can find the resources, the energy and the diversity to grow and adapt and grow again. Business deals are made by face-to-face discussion, by familiarity, by shared interests, and by incidental and casual meetings. Downtown is where the conduct of business is easiest. That is why it is the logical place for the seat of government, the financial market, and the business services market. It is where there is the widest variety of floor space and rent costs for all kinds of business, especially start-ups and social services. Nowhere else can offer comparable levels of foot traffic at your door.5. Fashion and Entertainment Centre. Because a healthy downtown will have the largest concentration of tourists, as well as the most highly educated professionals in town, it is also the natural location for the city’s premier fashion and entertainment market. It is the place where you bring visitors to show them what is special, perhaps even unique to your city.6. Social and Cultural Centre. The concentration of heritage buildings, historic places, cultural institutions and social facilities in the downtown make it a place that people need in order to celebrate life, to share their sorrows and simply to see and be seen. It is an essential neutral zone where people with every kind of differences can meet, air their differences, solve problems and accept each other.Most cities today fail most of these essential downtown roles. But no other model of urban planning has arisen that can replace the downtown. We cannot write-off the successful experience of 10,000 years of human settlement because we now have cars. If the downtown is broken, we must fix it. A discussion thread has been created at http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?46416This message has been sent to all moderators of this article, or all administrators if there are no moderators.Please respond to this comment as applicable.