Downtown Revival: How Cities are Transforming Urban Cores into Thriving Hubs

Back at the turn of the last century, the U.S. was still primarily a rural country, anchored in agriculture. Then World War II happened, and in its aftermath, industry proliferated to create jobs and revitalize the economy. But young families didn’t want to live amidst the urban cacophony, and the suburban migration began.

Now the tide has turned once again. Many Millennials and Gen Xers find the pulse of city life exciting. Everything you need in your twenties and thirties is there. But while the cities themselves have expanded over time, the urban cores have shrunk. It’s up to the cities to revive them.

Here are examples of what that looks like:

  • The American Viticultural Area (AVA) designated tiny Augusta, Missouri, the country’s first wine-growing region. But most people associate wine with California’s Napa Valley. Business magnate and philanthropist David Hoffmann aims to change that by turning Augusta into a gateway destination as “the Napa Valley of the Midwest.” Having grown up just across the river from Augusta, his heart remains with this small city. He envisions a world-class hotel and golf course, five-star restaurants, art galleries, and premier shopping that will attract visitors far and wide.
  • Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Greenville, South Carolina, are enjoying similar revitalizations. In fact, Jacksonville, South Carolina, with a population four times that of Greenville, learned from Greenville how to transform its own urban core. Greenville successfully used horizontal public improvements to stimulate private vertical development. A tree-lined Main Street and shorter buildings felt more accessible to visitors, and the city hub gained greater appeal.

Key Trends Shaping the Future of Cities

To revitalize and maintain a healthy urban core, cities are in investing in a number of essential changes. Some valuable ideas:

1.   Nature. Cities and trees don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, yet even the most densely populated cities have dedicated green environments. Think Central Park in New York City or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Both cities are geographically small and tightly packed with inhabitants, yet these sprawling nature sanctuaries are historic landmarks to which both residents and visitors gravitate in droves. Adding greenery only adds to the ambiance. In addition, planting more trees in cities will improve air quality (trees absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen) and will help with all aspects of climate change.

2.   Easy access. It’s axiomatic that one major point of living in an urban hub is that nothing is very far from your front door. Even in the Age of Amazon and myriad food delivery services, the concept of the “15-minute city” means almost every service or amenity one might require is within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of home, which creates a strong neighborhood focus.

3.   Digital innovation. Beyond companies that are innovating in the digital space as a matter of course, cities will need to become “Living Laboratories” of digital transformation and experimentation, with the end goal being to attract more people (and companies) to move there. The framework includes a quintuple “innovation helix”: industry, government, schools, the public, and the environment, to solve the city’s pressing problems and create a flourishing ecosystem.

4.   Circular economy, local production. Just as the sustainability model is about “rethink, reduce, reuse, restore, repurpose,” a circular city economy is a sharing economy with minimized municipal waste and a boom in local production, such as urban farms. There is also an emphasis on better resource distribution and use that stimulates the desire to repair rather than replace, recycle rather than discard, and borrow overbuy.

5.   Group development. You might think it would be odd, if not impossibly unrealistic, to involve consumers in building-related decisions. Yet, to develop a human-centered city, this is at the heart of design. A collaborative process that asks for input from the people who will live there closes the gap with government and creates a more livable environment, an engaged populace, clearer expectations, and a willingness to work for the greater good of the community.

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