Dec. 7, 2023
The economic circumstances of cities and their downtowns have recently shifted significantly — and, in most cases, for the worse. The specter of fewer office workers, declining retail sales, and rising commercial real estate vacancies requires a radical reimagining of what downtowns can and should be.
Some cities are rethinking their downtowns by exploring the conversion of empty office buildings to housing or hosting large events. But we need more than new housing and Taylor Swift concerts to revive downtowns. Thoughtful and strategic investments in the places we all own together — our parks, community centers, and streets — may turn out to be some of the smartest moves American cities can make.
In Memphis, for example, an initiative called Reimagining the Civic Commons has brought together the public, philanthropic organizations, and the private sector to collaboratively invigorate multiple public spaces along the Mississippi River — all within walking distance of downtown. First came Fourth Bluff Park and River Garden, followed by a complete overhaul of the city's historic Cossitt Library. And over Labor Day weekend, Memphis opened the newly transformed, 30-acre Tom Lee Park.
These rejuvenated downtown spaces in Memphis are connected to some impressive results: tens of thousands of new visitors, an increase in the number of people living downtown, new hotel rooms, and more retail space being leased.
Here are some ways downtowns can leverage public space for economic success and vitality:
Become an experience. Many downtowns are suffering because they've become inconvenient and dismal. In place of empty downtown streets, unappealing office spaces, and little viable retail, downtowns must become delightful, attractive places that offer experiences unavailable anywhere else.
Public space has been a priority for public, private, and philanthropic partners working together in downtown Detroit for the past two decades. Collective investments and collaborative hard work have transformed the Riverfront into beautiful public spaces, including the three-and-a-half-mile RiverWalk and world-class parks. Two Detroit public spaces were recently named the best in the country, and investment continues with a freshly opened greenway and a new waterfront park under construction.
Reclaim streets for people. About 15 percent of a city's footprint is devoted to parks and public space, while 25 percent is dedicated to streets and sidewalks. To recapture space for people, New York City created the Parks without Borders initiative, which connects parks, sidewalks, and streets into a seamless public realm. NYC mayor Eric Adams also appointed Ya-Ting Liu as the first chief public realm officer, tasked with reimagining public space for people. While major projects have been announced by the city, smaller projects like extending sidewalks, particularly on oversize streets, and claiming parking spaces with outdoor furniture and planters enable quick transformations. For example, many of New York's outdoor dining sheds (covered tables and seating used by restaurants) located in on-street parking areas are now permanent, and regularly scheduled neighborhood "play streets" give children access to car-free open space.
Make diversity a competitive advantage. Parks and public spaces should be welcoming places to everyone — regardless of age, race, ability, or gender. When designed and operated to bridge divides, these spaces also can contribute to economic success for the community. Research shows that when poor children live in places where people have more diverse social connections (particularly, connections that transcend incomes), they have a greater chance of escaping poverty. Given the elevated levels of economic segregation in our cities, downtown public spaces also are one of the best chances to draw together people of diverse backgrounds, demonstrated by Memphis's River Garden, which attracts nearly 500 people from 40 different zip codes for Tuesday evening yoga.
Even if your city's downtown revival strategy is built upon converting office space to housing, you'll need to create outdoor and community spaces that interest and appeal to potential residents. High-quality public spaces are what make dense living enjoyable. When a public park is your backyard and the library down the street serves as your office space, downtown living can be enticing for people looking for a place to call home.
Of course, these places must be well-managed and kept clean and welcoming. Downtown public spaces will only be desirable if people feel safe and comfortable and not confronted with fear and chaos in their surroundings.
Downtowns will not likely fill up with office workers in the foreseeable future, but they can become something new and welcoming for the community. This moment, the here and now, requires investments and project imagination that connect people across diverse backgrounds. Now is the time to move forward with downtowns for people, powered by thoughtful planning and public space.