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.