Have Downtowns Become Victims of Their Own Success?

factory_pollutionThis year’s International Downtown Association (IDA) Annual Conference was held in Winnipeg, MB.  Having been to more of these conferences than I care to count, I found the discussions this year very interesting.  In the past, many of the presentations were about how to get people into downtown. The challenges of changing the image of North American downtown’s from either scary, crime-ridden places or sterile businesses districts that empty at night, formed many of the issues that IDA members were trying to address.

Because of these challenges, downtown organizations have focused on making downtowns more liveable by encouraging residential development through placemaking activities like the development of parks and other gathering spaces, reducing traffic speeds, and encouraging events and activities.  The success of these activities can be seen in many downtowns that have moved from sterile to exciting.

This success has led to the notion that living in downtown is actually preferable to living in a distant suburb and commuting to downtown for work.  New residential development has followed along with gentrification of many of the low income inner neighborhoods.  Along with this residential development has come new retail development and the proliferation of the many chains and independent operators serving coffee and providing social spaces for these downtown dwellers.  All of this has been greeted by many citizens as a welcome improvement to many of the negatives of downtowns and especially by property owners as they see their properties increase in value well beyond what they ever expected.

Unfortunately, these gains and improvements have come at a cost.  Those who previously lived in these neighborhoods can no longer afford them, as the residential rents and goods and services provided by local retailers have all gone up in price.  Downtowns are now in danger of becoming ghettos for the well-off and the elite while lower income groups are being pushed farther out into the suburbs.

This year, the conversations at the conference were dramatically different.  The challenges that now face the downtown organizations that make up IDA’s membership tend to be related to their own activities.  To their credit, members of IDA are now addressing this trend.  Many of the presentations at the Winnipeg conference were about how to make sure that downtowns are for everyone and not just those who can afford it.  It is recognized that a downtown that is one dimensional in any way, will not be strong and resilient.  It is the diversity of downtowns that makes them interesting and exciting.  Preserving this diversity means that downtown management professionals must acquire many new skills.  Without this work, downtowns will become victims of their own success.

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