Guest post: Petula Clark’s Downtown. Is it our Downtown?

When you are alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go – downtown.

Photo by Rob Futrell

The first two lines of Petula Clark’s 1965 international hit recording set the tone for the rest of her song that is a tribute to the role and importance of downtowns in our lives. Unfortunately, over the 47 years since her song was recorded, America’s downtowns have been in a state of decline. But was Petula Clark’s view right about the role of downtowns?

Mayor Brown recently addressed our own Downtown and proposed to the Jacksonville City Council the creation of a Downtown Investment Authority, which has since been approved.  This new agency will serve as the City’s Community Redevelopment Agency for the Downtown redevelopment area. This agency and other accompanying legislation were important components of Mayor Brown’s Downtown revitalization campaign proposal.

Revitalization of Jacksonville’s downtown has been important to all of Jacksonville’s mayors since post consolidation in 1968, when Mayor Hans Tanzler took office. Jacksonville is not unlike other cities throughout the United States. Cities of all sizes, locations and ages are developing or implementing plans that would revitalize, regrow and/or reinvent their downtowns. Indianapolis, San Diego and Kansas City, to name a few, are among those cities that have very active and focused revitalization efforts.

But why has revitalization and redevelopment of our nation’s downtowns become an important focus for so many cities? The traditional reasons for redevelopment or revitalization generally include: city image and economic development efforts, existing infrastructure, transit viability, access to essential public services and providing community focus.

City image is certainly an important reason—it is so closely linked to economic development and marketing efforts. As the downtowns of many cities have declined, the political and business leadership of these communities has recognized the importance of a vibrant, quality image. Strong downtowns assist in attracting new businesses and people to the region, as the quality of a downtown is frequently used by companies as a key criterion in the selection process for relocations. A city’s image is also important to marketing efforts targeted at tourists and visitors.

Downtowns have been described as the souls of their cities. Last year, Downtown Las Vegas selected “Every City has a Soul” as its slogan. Strong, vibrant downtowns are a source of community pride, not unlike the impact of successful professional sports teams.

Photo by Rob Futrell

A strong downtown provides a community a centralized focus area. As the recognized central gathering place, successful regional events, major productions and cultural activities positively impact its image and community pride. The St. Johns River, EverBank Field, the Times-Union Center for Performing Arts, the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena and The Jacksonville Landing all provide the opportunity for community focus in our city.

Beyond these more-traditional reasons for and benefits from Downtown revitalization, are there other reasons to revitalize our Downtown?  Edward Glaeser, a Harvard urban economist, thinks so. His recently published book, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, is a compelling and provocative book that sings the praise of downtowns. Calling it our greatest invention, through research and analysis he destroys a number of myths. Urban cores have a reputation of being “dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime-ridden, expensive and environmentally unfriendly.” Glaeser points out that actually urban cores are the “healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live.” He makes a very forceful case why we should nurture (revitalize) downtowns.

I am glad Mayor Brown has made a first step in the revitalization of Jacksonville’s Downtown because I believe a healthy, vibrant Downtown is important to our region and the citizens of Jacksonville—And because I believe Petula Clark’s Downtown should be our Downtown.

*Post published with permission by Bruce Johnson, chair of Urban Land Institute North Florida.