Revitalizing Downtown America

August 11, 2010

All the talk about whether or not to rebuild New Orleans (as if there could be any sane argument against doing so) brings to mind the larger issue of how to restore vitality to the downtowns of all of America's major cities, following more than a half-century of mass suburbanization.

There are some promising signs that downtowns are making a comeback. In the 1990s, the number of households living in a sample of 45 urban downtowns went up 14%, according to a work in progress by the University of Pennsylvania's Eugenie Birch. That's an encouraging sign.

As we all know from personal experience, what makes downtowns exciting is their walkability. Boutiques, restaurants, music shops, theaters, churches, museums, sidewalk activity, the other people (and their dogs) on the street, all packed into a relatively tight space—these are the things that make for a vibrancy that, for better or worse, pushes your pulse rate into second gear.

Unfortunately, well-intended efforts to promote safety and welfare often work against the funkiness and diversity that make downtowns exciting. As Christopher B. Leinberger notes in "Turning Around Downtown: Twelve Steps to Revitalization" (Brookings, March 2005), zoning and building codes "actually outlaw the necessary elements of walkable urbanity."

Leinberger, a partner in the Albuquerque, N.M., office of real estate firm Arcadia Land Co., notes that if Santa Fe's 400-year-old downtown burned to the ground, the only structures that could legally be built would be strip commercial buildings and Wal-Marts.

In many cities, he writes, "often well-intentioned setback and floor-area ratio rules mean that new construction cannot maintain consistency with older historic structures." Excessive parking requirements create large surface lots that suck the life out of once-lively streetfronts. Many cities put too much emphasis on separating land uses and limiting density, says Leinberger, when it is the very mishmash of uses and the packed effect of density that give life to downtowns.

Leinberger offers a dozen major recommendations that, taken together, make this cogent 24-page report a solid read for those who care about cities. For example, he calls for cities to dump traditional zoning regulations, which focus on what uses are permitted, in favor of "form-based" zoning codes. These codes focus on "how building envelopes—and ultimately whole blocks—address the street." Form-based codes are more flexible than traditional codes. They don't, for example, mandate parking ratios, but rather assume that developers will build the parking they need to make their projects viable. Such codes would also encourage more mixed-use development.

Even if you don't agree with every one of Leinberger's dozen recommendations, you will find his ideas and the arguments behind them provocative.

Download "Turning Around Downtown" at:


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