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Downtowns in many American communities have experienced more than fifty years of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. There are a number of factors that have contributed to this indifference toward our central cities. Several decades of bad public policy, private market forces, as well as individual prejudices have all worked counter to the health of central cities.
Fortunately over the last two decades this trend has slowly begun to shift. Today, cities of all sizes have implemented plans to revitalize, re-grow, and reinvent their downtowns.
Why are downtowns important and why the need for all of these revitalization strategies? Because downtowns are the heart of a city and region -- and having a healthy heart is essential to having a strong city and region.
Noted urban economist Edward Glaeser recently described cities as mankind’s greatest invention. Glaeser noted that while urban cores have a reputation of being “dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime-ridden, expensive and environmentally unfriendly,” they are actually the “healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live.” 1 He makes a very forceful case for the city's importance and provides economic proof that central cities are our best hope for the future.
In my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, like many cities in United States, downtown’s decline began in the 1960s and continued for several decades. As in many other places, government policies and incentives fueled outward growth that left urban centers a shell of what they once were. This outward growth, now commonly referred to as “sprawl,” led to the erosion of city centers and massive income-based segregation. Other side effects from outward migration left the less mobile urban population with fewer job opportunities and access to basic services, as well as leaving children and the elderly lacking independence.
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Kitsinger’s thirty-year career as an architect, urban designer, city planner, and teacher has focused on creating authentic places that are strongly influenced by their context and have a positive impact on their community. He teaches Issues in City Building and Architectural Design Studio at the University of Memphis’ Department of Architecture.
Kitsinger served as the Senior Vice President of Planning & Development for the Downtown Memphis Commission (formally Center City Commission) for the last eight plus years where he helped continue the momentum of downtown while working to improve the livability and the quality of life in the City.
In the coming months Kitsinger will be reporting on issues focused on downtowns and main streets. The subjects of upcoming articles will include: critical steps in revitalizing downtowns; community engagement in the development process; and is it tactical urbanism or public vandalism? If there are downtown-related topics you’d like to see addressed, please e-mail Kitsinger c/o PlannersWeb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (London: Penguin Random House, 2012) ↩