Now that the downtown that many of us have envisioned and worked for since the 1980's is being partly realized, I think it is important that we not lose sight of the elements of the geographical and design features that make downtown's so important. Equally important, is the management of access to the downtown so that it can evolve over time into a sustainable and convivial place.
Downtowns historically arise out of the dynamism that comes with integration of all aspects of life into a very small space. Offices, residential, retail, entertainment and leisure activities were organically interwoven in the pre-automotive era, simply because most people walked everywhere within their home place, and used canals and carriages to make journeys beyond a few miles walk. Even the railroad and the street car did little to impact the dynamism of our centralized urban patterns.
It is no coincidence that the modern profession of city planning emerged at the same time as the automobile and the hyper industrialization that it fed. Enamored by the "horseless carriage", and fueled by the mass production of Detroit, space beyond the core of cities, heretofore the province of agriculture and the estates of the 1%, became fertile ground for the creation of a new way of living, the suburb. The early 20th century light rail and horse trolley suburbs, such as Shaker Heights near Cleveland, were soon leap-frogged by automobile oriented suburbs beyond the center city. The natural limits of the city, how far one could walk in 30 minutes, became how far one could drive in that time, an exponential growth in the ground covered, and hence effected,in the daily life of the middle class.
City planners and architects saw the promise as well as the peril that the technological revolution brought, with some, such as Frank Lloyd Wright seeing the automobile as freeing humanity from the squalor of American cities, which themselves had grown over-crowded by high levels of immigration and the growth of sweatshop industry. The Manhattan borough of New York City, for instance, was once twice as crowded as it is now.
On the other side of the equation were those that saw the big down side to the proliferation of the automobile and the cost of feeding its appetite. More land given over to roads, the expansion of parking as taking precedence over proximty of use, and the general flight (for both economic and social reasons) from the city core. By mid 20th century some planners were becoming alarmed by the rapid pace of sprawl, but were powerless to stop it, so long as transportation spending was increasingly controlled by suburban and indeed some anti-city elected officials. While some cities, because of their importance or geography continued to thrive, the rust belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, Pittsburgh and Buffalo have become a shadow of their former selves. Cleveland, for instance, has a population of around 400,000, less than half its 1950 population of 915,000.
The development in the 1960s of the Interstate Highway System, ostensibly devised to improve the defense of the nation, served mostly to increase the mobility of people and freight at the expense of the central cities. Entire neighborhoods of our urban cores were displaced, often into squalid public housing "projects" in order to make it easier to get in and out of the city. A seemingly endless spiral of the demolition of the urban core began as the increase in the population of automobiles fed into the decreasing population of people, with some central cities becoming 70 percent or more surface parking. Downtown, "the first neighborhood", became a ghost town at night, surrounded by neighborhoods made less desirable by the flight of the middle class and the businesses that provide for them.
In recent decades, most large American cities, and some small ones, such as Kent, have made significant investments in their historic downtowns, in an effort to revitalize them. Architects, designers and planners have begun to find ways to re-create the traditional mixed use pattern that is pedestrian, bicycle and transit oriented. As we have done with the Kent downtown master plan, is to emulate the form of Kent and Ravenna from the turn of the 20th century, with three story architecture (albiet with a three-story parking deck).
While some see the current successful development of our downtown as an end to a process in making it a "destination", a 21st Century downtown has to work to overcome the "ghost town" mentality by becoming a true first neighborhood. Even with a lively "night life," it is only an 18-hour neighborhood.
A growing number of architects, urban designers and planners understand that a neighborhood of the 21st century should look more like those of the early 20th, than the ones we developed in the 60's through the 80's. It needs to be a place where someone can live and obtain all the necessities of life without getting into an automobile. It should be one where one can use public transit or a bicycle to get to another part of town or the town 5 miles or 50 miles away. Doing this, especially in the light of climate change, is now not just a good idea, but a national and international priority.
These neighborhoods need to have a mix of uses close together. This can only be achieved if the space that once was used for the storage of automobiles is given over to vital uses where people can work, dining, live and work.
For Kent's newly enhanced downtown to be successful in the long run we will need to find a way to increase the accessibility of the thousands of people who live within walking distance and the tens of thousands that live within bicycling and transit distance. While some seem to be preoccupied with parking, learning to use the downtown as our "first neighborhood" will require that we work for the next 20 years to remove all surface parking and replace it with buildings and high quality pedestrian spaces. The parking lot in the core of the Fairmount development block for instance, while it would have been better as a greenspace, can become a public square with a few design improvements. It could be become a great venue for parties, concerts, stump speeches for presidential candidates, and the like.
When we concieved of a transit center for downtown 20 years ago, some of us were looked at like we were crazy. Transit Oriented Design, which understands the vitality of downtowns, was something they did on the "left coast." With the PARTA center in place, no one will have an excuse to drive their car into downtown, taking up valuable parking spaces best left for visitors.
The challenge of course is that some, accustomed to having their way with their four wheels, will demand a continued discount on the cost of a parking space. Having subsidized them for so long in Kent, this transition will be interesting.
The key will be to find a way to find the true cost of a parking space in terms of not just its land value, capital and maintenance costs, but also its social, lost economic opportunity, water quality and carbon footprint costs.
Part of what we probably need to do, from a policy perspective, is to find a way to incentivize those who use the downtown most conservatively by arriving on foot, bike and bus. Charging for parking 24/7 on a market adjusted scale would pay for enhanced pedestrian, bicycle and transit facilities as well as clean up after the night-time users of downtown.
The last and perhaps hardest thing we need to do is to find a way to build more housing in downtown. This will be a challenge, because some have visions of the entire downtown as an entertainment district. While we have lost a great opportunity by allowing the construction of massive, single-age residential development on the periphery of campus instead of downtown, we can over the next few decades continue to increase the dynamism of our downtown as our first neighborhood through building high quality apartments for a wide variety of people.
Downtown, as our "first neighborhood," belongs to all of us. Making it a safe, convivial and creative place will require that we diligently work on its continuous improvement. While many of us are tired and even burnt out by the effort so far, an observation by a friend a few weeks back says it all. "I feel like it's not the same Kent anymore." To that I say: exactly.
And the young people I talk to all the time are starting to say, "I love this town," even as I encourage them to become real citizens and work to make it a an even better city.