Is Downtown Still Important?

Public transit

Photo of Downtown Lethbridge by Kim Siever.

At the beginning of the month, I stumbled into a conversation on Twitter with other people from Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada). We were discussing the need for more services on our side of the city.

Without getting into too much detail, my side of town (West) is heavily populated, but served by comparatively few businesses. Its population has grown dramatically since I was a kid. For whatever reason (I’m sure smarter people know why) businesses have either shied away or failed to stay in the area. As far as I know, the municipal government has not been very active in encouraging or promoting such growth (once again, smarter people are free to correct me here).

On the other hand, the downtown area has seen a great deal of time and money invested in its revitalization.

During that Twitter discussion, this point was brought up.

The character of a city is defined by its downtown so continuing to support the Mainstreet project is the right direction. (original link)

It’s been 3 weeks since that conversation, and it’s still on my mind.

Are “downtowns” still relevant? Do they still define a city the way they did in generations past?

Certainly, from a tourist standpoint, I’m sure that’s the case. People visiting New York don’t wander through residential areas to sightsee. But what about the residents?

Do you think it’s important for your city to have a large central business core, or would you prefer the convenience of smaller centres spread throughout the city? Are there economic reasons why a “downtown” area is better for a city?

Perhaps I’m the last person to ask. I work from home. I do most of my shopping on my side of town. If I have to buy something I can’t get here, I don’t go downtown to find it. Occasionally I have to meet with a client or make a deposit downtown. Otherwise, I do my best to avoid it.

There’s nothing wrong with the area. I worked there for a long time, and there are plenty of great shops to visit. I just don’t like hunting for parking, plugging a meter, and then dealing with the crowds. Obviously, if I lived close by, that would be a different story.

In addition, I just don’t see the benefit of spending money in order to build a city’s “character”. I always felt that character developed over time on its own. It doesn’t seem like the type of thing you plan for. When there are so many more important problems that need our time and money, I just don’t see “character” at the top of my spending list. Maybe when I can take my sick child to the emergency room without having to pack 2 meals and an overnight bag, I will see things differently. Yet again, maybe it’s up to us entrepreneurs to do something about it, instead of relying on City Hall.

I highly doubt I’m the norm, so I would love to hear your opinions. Whether you live in Lethbridge or a city of 2,000,000 across the globe, I would like to know what you think about the idea of a “downtown”. Is it a priority to you? Should it be for your municipal government? Let me know in the comments.