Much of America is waking from half a century during which downtowns were too often treated as deadwood – unimportant or even loathsome.
Some of those attitudes reflect an American mythology that has tended to view cities as sinful, and that looks for its salvation to the wilderness – the forests of Daniel Boone, the plains of the cowboys and pioneers. But cowboy mythology notwithstanding, downtowns are roaring back to popularity.
As Citistates Report authors Alex Marshall and Neal Peirce reminded us in Sunday's articles, downtowns are essential to a healthy urban region. And while uptown Charlotte is the region's big and booming center, the other downtowns – from Lancaster, S.C., to Monroe to Hickory and beyond – are just as important.
In the Carolinas, historically a rural and small-town society, people are more apt to feel nostalgic about and protective of woods, farm fields and country stores than city neighborhoods. Most people don't make this connection: The best way to protect the beloved countryside is to have healthy and compact urban centers, whether they're skyscraper-graced Charlotte or Main Street Mooresville or Shelby's courthouse square.
Here's why they're related. As a metro area attracts newcomers, they need places to live. Those homes will either be inside an existing town, which will become denser with infill development, or they'll spread out, devouring farms and woods. As suburbia nears, farming gets harder. Property values go up, traffic gets worse, suburbanites start to complain about smells, noises and slow tractors.
So to save farmland and open spaces, it's important to have downtowns that attract people to live and shop.
Similarly, there's a huge connection between strong public transit and strong downtown centers. Transit works best when lots of people live within walking or bicycling distance of transit stops. That keeps cars off the road and reduces the need to pay to build ugly Park and Ride lots or expensive parking decks.
When households can get by with fewer cars, it helps both traffic congestion and family budgets. But for that to work you need, besides a good transit system, stores, parks and amenities within walking distance – in other words, a downtown.
Finally, downtowns are vital as the hearts of communities. Without that heart, a city or town or village will wither as a functioning organism. The great urban writer Jane Jacobs said it well:
“Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.”