Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut used to like to say that “you can’t be a suburb of nowhere.” This is the oft-repeated notion has been a rallying cry for investments to revitalize downtowns in America for three decades or so now. The idea being that you can’t have a smoking hole in your region where your downtown is supposed to be. This created a mental based on a donut. You can’t let downtown become an empty hole. For reason that will become apparent soon, I call this model “the old donut”:
These efforts have paid off to a certain degree. Most big city downtowns have done very well as entertainment and visitor districts, eds and meds centers, etc. More recently we’ve seen an influx of residents, even in places where the overall city or even region has struggled or declined. Cleveland added about 4,000 net new downtown residents in the 2000s. St. Louis added 3,000. With most cities in some stage of an apartment building spree consisting of a few thousand units, these numbers should only improve.
Key weaknesses remain in private sector employment (declining in most places) and retail (not enough high income residents yet). And other than the tier one types of cities like Chicago, few places seem to have reached a sustainable market rate development level yet – pretty much everything is getting public assistance. Yet its pretty evident that most larger downtowns have made huge strides and are experiencing overall reasonable health.
In short, the donut hole has been filled in. Where does that leave us? I’d argue with a paradigm I call “the new donut”:
You see this in the population figures. Wendell Cox cranked the numbers and found that major metro areas gained 206,000 residents in the two mile radius from the center, but lost 272,000 residents from the 2-5 mile ring. Growth picked up strongly beyond that arc. This is the new donut area, though the start and end of it vary by metro and some have thicker rings of challenge than others.
We’ve got three decades of experience in downtown revitalization, but much less in dealing with this newer challenge zone. I’ve said that suburban revitalization may prove to be the big 21st century “urban” challenge. This is where it is happening in many cases. These areas have an inferior housing stock (often small post-war worker cottages or ranches), sometimes poor basic infrastructure, and are sometimes independent municipalities that, like Ferguson, MO, are often overlooked unless something really bad happens. Unlike the major downtown, they are often “out of sight, out of mind” for most regional movers and shakers.
What’s more, while downtown provides a concentrated location for massive public investment, this more spread out area is too big to fix by throwing money at it. And how many stadiums and convention centers does a region need in any event?
This is where we need to be doing a lot of thinking about how to bring these places back, look at what’s being done, etc. And also, given the inequality in the country, to try to think about ideas that don’t involve gentrification. One project that appears to be in this kind of zone, for example, is Atlanta’s Beltline project, though there’s a gentrifying aspect to this one. Regions that figure this one out will be at a big advantage going forward.