Is the traditional downtown a thing of the past? Or is it due for a revival?

Yonge Street
CC BY 1.0 John Chuckman

Over at NRDC Switchboard, Kaid Benfield asks Is the 'traditional' downtown a thing of the past? Is that OK? After a rousing round of Petula Clark singing Downtown, he suggests that kids today never knew a real downtown and probably won't get to.

I know I have a very clear image of what an ideal downtown is, but that dream of a complete, exciting downtown serving as a hub of all things urban may well be lost in many American cities. Younger people never knew the concept of a healthy, unified downtown to begin with, so it doesn’t bother them that what is emerging today is more diffuse, less geographically centered, less complete, without large retail anchors where one might do much of one’s holiday shopping.

I am not so sure, not just because I live in Toronto where downtown never died. Downtown retail worked because people used transit, which usually ran on the main streets. People didn't necessarily have cars, so they bought food and clothing close to where they lived, shopping more often. They liked it when the stores were close together because they didn't need to walk as far between them.

Retailers don't lead the market, they follow it.

The data show that both millennials and baby boomers are driving less and moving back downtown. Joel Kotkin says it isn't happening so it must be true. Retailers don't lead the market, they follow it.

© Urban Toronto

It's not just the independents and the startups either, the big guys are following the trend too. In Toronto, Canadian Tire, a giant in the big box world, has opened on a main street in a vibrant neighbourhood. It may be ugly but it is transformational, and they are not alone. According to Marina Strauss in the Globe and Mail,

An array of retailers, including discount giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are moving in the same direction, responding to time-pressed consumers who are seeking convenience and faster shopping – and often ready to spend more for the speedy experience. As well, big-box retailers are close to saturating their core suburban markets and now are following their shoppers, who are moving into dense city centres, where store space is at a premium.

If they come, you will build it.

Downtowns are coming back, and with them the retail. They are going to concentrate around transit nodes like they used to, and the big chains aren't going to get left in the suburbs, they are going follow the money. It won't be diffuse, and it will have anchors. That's my bet.

And here is the original version of Downtown:

Tags: Cities | Urban Life | Urban Planning