Where Did the Downtowns Go? Are They Coming Back?

I am an architect and product of multiple cities. There is so much well written by urbanists who have experienced great cities, and discussed comprehensively many of the topics herein. Here are some recent thoughts tied to my perceptions related to our current evolution of city making in hopes that it will spur conversation about our work.

For most of my professional life, I have had the good fortune to work in downtown Charleston. There are many reasons why Charleston is an extremely popular destination, not least of which is its walkability. The interconnected street grid and the density on the peninsula make pedestrian transit enjoyable and convenient; if you have three errands to run at lunch you can hit the post office, drug store, and grocery store in 30 minutes on foot. To go to other parts of the peninsula, you can jump on a shuttle based on the old streetcar model  or bicycle and be back in an hour.

Across the river, in Mt. Pleasant or West Ashley, the situation is quite different. The same three errands would require navigating by car, using a real-time GPS navigation app like WAZE to make sure the collector road you usually take is not backed up with a wreck. Multiple routes may exist, but the lack of a regular street grid prevents alternate paths and makes walking between the errands difficult. All over the Southeast, this type of decentralized development is the normal condition outside only our oldest cities and has over the years diminished our sense of place and community. Without a walkable downtown, where do municipalities hold events? Where is the parade, the farmers market or cultural memory? Where do we take family and friends visiting our towns to show pride?

The erosion of downtowns is not new, and is a complex issue rooted in politics, geography, economics, topography, and history. In the South, small towns were originally connected by two-lane highways that ran through the center of town. Then came the phenomenon of the bypass highway, which drove development of big boxes and outparcel restaurants on the edge of towns. This decentralization was, of course, an economic blow to the original Main St. commercial strips, and these highways started a revolution of greenbelt expansion further away from the center and faster than ever before.  As this expansive growth continued, the ability to plan or stitch together these intermittent places was increasingly difficult. Limited jurisdiction of municipalities to enact connected infrastructure, unincorporated areas of counties, and the cost and time required to overcome this growth pattern became obstacles.

As the new urbanism movement took hold in the 80s and 90s, architects and planners were taught about the disconnected subdivisions only accessible by main roads, and side-by-side neighborhoods not flowing into one another. Unlike the original gridded towns and cities of early America, which borrowed from European models, the new developments – think Seaside- which emerged from these precepts were built as standalone communities on greenfield sites. These communities function as gorgeous small towns driving wealthy, mostly single-family housing, small town centers, and branded architecture to reflect southern regionalism with historic flavor. Though many such communities exist around the perimeter of our historic cities, these developments are fragmented from other- even immediately adjacent- development due to the lack of bikeways, trailways, and mass transit that should connect them.

One example is where I live in the new urbanist planned community of Daniel Island, which includes multiple neighborhoods a developing waterfront, and is beginning- after 20 years- to feel like a satellite town. However, for 90% of my car trips, I still find myself heading to Mount Pleasant or North Charleston to access the home store, the late-hour pharmacy, the well-stocked grocery store – the things that Americans of all income levels have come to expect. Our on-demand culture comes with myriad choices, and we want what we want, when we want it. And now, with the uncertainty about the future of retail, it is increasingly difficult for small businesses to provide the goods and services that once were available in our downtowns. Thus, disconnected neighborhoods, decentralized downtowns, and low-density sprawl are exacerbating the traffic congestion that clogs our commutes.

Restoring sense of “place,” convenience and building a better quality of life for all will require a multifaceted approach, but the good news is that solutions do exist.

Focus on connectivity.

In order to build back the interconnectedness of historic growth patterns, we must first embrace municipal attempts to create complete streets to connect sidewalks bikeways, paths, trails, and greenways. Connecting neighborhoods to each other, and to downtown centers, via multiple modalities of transit will yield substantial community benefits. To build authentic connections, we also need to encourage the communities and the developments within them to find common goals and reasons to connect. Resistance to interconnectedness may be built upon misperceptions of declining property values or increasing taxes; building relationships between neighborhoods is a powerful tool in overcoming these barriers and understanding neighborhood needs and perceptions. As we consider new developments, how do we design more thoughtfully what happens at the edge? How do we build connectivity to existing places? How do we plan for connectivity to greenways, sidewalks, and public transit options?

Design for the 15 Minute City.

Placemaking doesn’t have to be limited to one central downtown. European cities, for example, may have grown around a true large city center which serves as a source of culture, identity, and pride for its residents. Neighborhoods surrounding the city center, however, often function as small villages in and of themselves, ideally with all of the amenities needed for daily life available within a 15-minute radius. In this model, placemaking happens at the hyper-local level as well as at the city scale, and each neighborhood “village” is interconnected with the next. Traffic is calmed, and “complete” streets and infill development support thriving pedestrian activity and commerce.

Minimize duplication.

Reducing our trips- and therefore reducing traffic congestion- will require us first to understand what is driving excess travel. Locating schools, offices, and residences in closer proximity to each other will help; likewise, conducting market studies to find out what people need, and curating our neighborhoods by infilling with places that minimize trips, will result in less travel time and a better quality of life. Too often, we duplicate places and services that already exist without considering what the neighborhood needs, fueling a cycle of duplicative businesses out-marketing each other, excess travel to reach services not located within the neighborhood, and businesses with mediocre design turning over every few years without leaving an impression. This pattern leaves us of no historical memory of a place, just a continuous search for something new without ever building a strong connection.

Get comfortable with density.

When we achieve the right balance, it becomes much easier to provide attractive amenities, goods, and services in a walkable, human-scale environment. Appropriate density, which may include taller buildings and structured parking, also helps us to create what one demographer is calling “surban” environments- walkable suburbs that raise the quality of life simply by creating opportunities to enjoy public spaces without vehicular travel. We must petition our cities to add density to reduce the need for travel, and we must explore new ways to add building area and use mixes that will bring convenience and enjoyment to the neighborhood. In planning for transit-oriented development, such as that along the new Lowcountry Rapid Transit Corridor, we can support economic success through higher density- greater than the typical one or two stories- at all of the stops and in strategic other locations.

Design for equity and affordability.

Too often, rising housing costs and other circumstances displace people who have occupied our cities for decades, and systemic economic disadvantages have led to increasing disparity. In designing for thriving, walkable neighborhoods, we bear the responsibility of making these neighborhoods welcoming and inclusive for all. How do we create opportunities for the people who work hard in our cities to live close to their jobs? How can we create opportunities to live together, instead of exclusively? We owe it to our cities to reach out to ALL residents. We must find the historical inhabitants of the district, current residents, and prospective newcomers. We need to get to know their stories and understand the cultural morphology of the site to direct development in ways that embrace the entire spectrum of a place. We must also use market studies to find the economic drivers of success, and to curate new uses so that they complement those in nearby districts without putting people out of business in the process.

The old downtown Main Streets, however quaint, may never be the same, but they can evolve and become vibrant again. Good bones and strong leadership encourage a place to revive and thrive. Nonetheless, our new models of walkable mixed- use cities, suburbs, and large-scale developments, will continue to proliferate. If we plan for interconnectivity, these new walkable places will eventually grow and stitch together over a larger area and longer period of time. Using sound design principles and clear guidelines, these strategies can be implemented incrementally, with multiple efforts and funding sources. Most of all, education on what makes places successful needs to be shared for all citizens so we can elect visionary leaders to implement best practices.

About Richard

With 35 years of experience in architectural practice, Richard Gowe serves as Vice President and Principal in LS3P’s Charleston office. With an expertise in commercial development projects, Richard’s experience includes new construction, renovations, and tenant upfits. He specializes in personalized  service to help his clients assess entitlement risk, facilitate consensus building, and define project parameters. Thriving on collaboration, Richard is able to actualize clients’ investment visions by building cohesive teams and connecting clients to other clients, contractors, consultants, or other professionals. Richard is considered a “businessman’s architect” because he is very considerate of his clients’ bottom line while designing outstanding urban and architectural spaces.

A 1983 graduate of Clemson University with a Master of Architecture degree from Rice University, Richard has worked extensively in Charleston’s Historic District and has assisted many of the city’s most experienced developers as well as out-of-town clients in navigating the complicated Charleston development landscape. He is well-versed in the stringent requirements of the local Board of Architectural Review, and participates as manager, client contact, and designer in the public approvals process. Beyond being an architect, Richard is a respected thought leader who is recognized for his discernment in marketing, assembling proposals, and developing strategies.