The downtown is the trendy place to work in the planning profession today. Planners everywhere are talking about restoring the old downtown, an undertaking motivated more often by nostalgia than sound planning principles. It is the downtown-as-a-museum concept I described last Monday in talking about Park Rapids. It's cute. It's fun. It misses the point entirely.

I will demonstrate this by pointing out that the small towns you see doing the downtown restoration projects are the same ones you see turning their urban streets into highways. These are the towns that are looking, subsidy in hand, for new growth on the periphery of their town (the functional and not the cute kind, that is). You know, the towns where the downtown building burns down and they see it as a great opportunity for more surface parking. Street lights, sidewalks, sign standards and subsidies - this is the toolbox of the modern downtown planner.

True downtown restoration does not happen just in that grid area near the old railroad stop. To make a downtown truly functional and competitive, and not just a trip down memory lane, it needs to be deeply interconnected with the surrounding community. This does not mean simply that you can choose to drive there, but that the surrounding neighborhoods are architecturally designed, economically integrated and socially connected on a human scale. 

If that seems like a lot of planning jargon, let me give you a real example we all understand: Wal-Mart. I am not, and our organization is not, anti Wal-Mart. I've always declined when the anti big box crusaders try to enlist me to speak on their behalf. Wal-Mart is not the problem, it is the symptom. The problem is that the development model we have adopted in Small Town America gives Wal-Mart a massive competitive advantage. Let me explain.

If you live three blocks from the downtown in any of our small towns, it is likely that you find it difficult to walk to that downtown. Ten blocks away and walking is all but impossible. Sidewalks don't exist. Streets have been given over to high-speed traffic (30 mph is high-speed through a neighborhood, yet it is our default engineering design speed). The setback and orientation of the buildings is harsh and uninviting. The public realm is a difficult place to be for a pedestrian.

So, it should be no surprise that rational people drive. They make a logical decision to get in their car and drive EVERYWHERE they go. Three blocks: drive. Ten blocks: drive. Ten miles: drive.

Once you force someone into their car, which is what we ALWAYS do, the competitive advantage of downtown proximity is destroyed. A three block auto trip to the downtown where you have to search for parking at the end is practically the same, or even less convenient, than the two mile trip to the big box where parking is abundant. Add that to the fact that downtown you must make multiple stops for the same number of products as one big box and you don't even need to talk about price. Downtown will lose every time.

Planners find it easier to focus simply on making the downtown a destination in and of itself. The model is a nostalgic museum, not the functional economic center. The former is easy and fun. The latter is (near-term) painful and difficult because it requires a complete reorientation of community values. Small towns that want a truly vibrant and economically strong downtown must: 

  • Forsake development on the periphery, despite the short-term tax base advantages.
  • Build complex streets that accommodate pedestrians on par with cars, despite federal and state highway subsidies that require the opposite.
  • Provide for mixed-use neighborhoods, often over NIMBY objection.
  • Throw out dated Euclidean zoning codes and replace them with form based codes that create a vibrant public realm, despite entrenched interests favoring the status quo (not to mention the small town lust for solving all problems through zoning regulation).
  • Focus on neighborhoods and connecting the community at a human scale in a society that has come to equate the automobile and auto-oriented design with freedom.

If we did these things, we would take the competitive disadvantage our downtowns face and turn them into strengths. The convenience of a comfortable three block walk or the inconvenience of a auto trip. The enjoyment of a vibrant public realm or the harshness of an asphalt parking lot and your standard Wal-Mart aisle. Your neighborhood retailer that knows your favorite ice cream flavor or the large company that knows how many people will buy toilet paper when it is placed on the end cap. 

Small towns can be great destinations AND economically competitive if they choose to be.

And lest our loyal readers think we have suddenly abandoned our financial focus and given ourselves up to nostalgia, let me point out that every downtown in Small Town America has hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars of infrastructure investment deteriorating as you read this. If your town is rich enough to casually disregard the value of this investment and instead double down with shiny new infrastructure on the periphery, congratulations. For the rest of us (everyone), growing a Strong Town by getting a higher return for our existing investments is the only way we will be able to afford to maintain them.